Ever heard of a company called Aereo? Yeah, didn’t think so. Up until last week I had never heard of it either, but this little company may be forging the way toward increased competition, lower prices, and more consumer choice in the oligopolistic televised media industry. That is assuming of course the nine kings and queens of the royal court (aka the US Supreme Court) consider the interests of 300 million consumers when they reflect upon the merits of a case as old as the republic itself: who shall receive the court’s tip of the hat, the protectionist rent-seekers or the upstart innovator?
In this 21st century replay of Gibbons v. Ogden, Aereo plays the role of the audacious entrepreneur challenging the state chartered monopolies (played here by NBC, ABC, & CBS). In Gibbons v. Ogden it was about who had the right to navigate the river-waves, now it concerns tapping the air-waves and surfing the web. Aereo is providing a service to consumers who prefer to watch their local TV stations over the more convenient medium of web-attached devices (thereby foregoing the hassle of dealing with antennas and converter boxes). Consumers are in essence renting antenna time from Aereo and having this content directed to their device. You’d think the big three media companies would be pleased – Aereo is expanding their viewership! But alas that is not the case. Because Aereo is redirecting these free over-the-air transmissions they have not been paying a tribute to the big three for the content. This stands in stark contrast to the hefty sums forked over each year by cable and satellite providers (and which are naturally passed on to the consumer). If Aereo is permitted to exist it might set a precedent that would allow an unwinding of the decades old law that made an arbitrary distinction between “public” vs. “private” broadcast (which is why cable companies must pay rebroadcast fees but we are free to record and time-shift content while enduring scary FBI warnings on our DVDs.).
The justification used against Aereo is that they are violating the copyright of the big three – rebroadcast without consent. This would be fine if copyright were an actual real form of property – the only problem is, it is not. Copyright, patent, & trademark are all artificial creatures of the state; they are the unicorns of rights. They are a state grant of monopoly privilege. Utilitarian opinions built upon notions of “encouraging” certain types of behavior by such monopolistic grants are as wrong-headed as any “ends justify the means” arguments. Whereas IP cannot exist absent state enforcement, true property rights, not being an invention of the state, can. The recognition of rights in property is the only alternative to violence when settling a conflict over the control of scarce and rivalrous material. Two parties resolving such a dispute do not necessarily rely on a state. Enforcement of IP, however, is impossible without state violence.
Ideas, assemblages of words or sounds, are neither scarce nor rivalrous; therefore, it is nonsensical to claim property rights in them (akin to claiming such a right in one’s name). A state enforced fiat decree to the contrary is no more legitimate than the decree that a man may be property. Indeed, man as property fails on the rivalrous test; rivalrous goods can be conveyed, a man’s soul cannot. If someone copies your creative work and that upsets you, beat them at their own game by copying the manner in which they are employing it. That’s how competition in a free market works, no state necessary. If your business model necessitates men with guns then there is something wrong with your business model.
Now, given that even the supposed champion-of-the-little-guy-mr-progressive-democrat-Obama has come down on the side of the big media conglomerates, my feeling is that Aereo will likely lose this case. There is just too much money at stake, and in the crony-capitalist cesspool that is Washington DC, “we the people” have allowed the growth of a dystopian system that enables moneyed interests (warfare, welfare, and cronyisms) to rule us all.