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With fortunes at stake, the case has drawn the passionate support and opposition of dozens of groups representing powerful technology and media firms, consumer advocates and even the Obama administration, which has weighed in on the side of the broadcasters.
Aereo "transmits copyrighted broadcast programs to the public, without the authorization of the copyright holders, and is therefore liable for infringement," the Obama administration said in a brief filed in support of the networks.
Smaller cable companies, on the other hand, are backing Aereo. They hope to partner with the firm or create similar technologies that would enable them to compete more effectively with bigger cable companies. The satellite firm Dish Network compares Aereo’s antennas to dumbwaiters that simply act on a human’s commands.
Their support has raised fears that copycat businesses would emerge if the court sides with Aereo. A decision isn’t likely before the court’s term ends in June.
"It would open the floodgates to more copyright being violated, and free and local television being undermined," Smith said. Broadcasters have vowed to fight an adverse decision in the halls of Congress, seeking to stop companies like Aereo through legislation if litigation fails.
Funded by IAC Chairman Barry Diller, Aereo currently operates in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Dallas, among other locations. The company hopes to eventually expand nationwide.
But Diller has said Aereo is unlikely to survive if it doesn’t win the case. And given the solicitor general’s surprisingly strong support for broadcasters, media and telecom analyst David Kaut said the justices may lean heavily on the government’s position that Aereo operates much like a cable firm and should be subject to the same obligations.
"Ultimately," Kaut said, "it may come down to a ‘it looks like duck and quacks like a duck’ decision."
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