Saturday, October 25, 2014

At what point is an over-the-air TV antenna too long to be legal?

You can get over-the-air HDTV signals using an antenna. This antenna gets a better, stronger signal with less interference if it is direct line-of-sight and as near as possible to the broadcast towers. So, you might want an antenna that is up high or even some distance away to get the best signal.

But if you try to do this, you immediately run into a question: At what point does that antenna become too long to be legal or the signal from the antenna is transmitted in a way where it is no longer legal?

Let's say I put an antenna behind my TV hooked up with a wire. That's obviously legal and what many people currently do.

Let's say I put an antenna outside on top of a tree or my garage and run a wire inside. Still seems obviously legal.

Let's say I put an antenna on top of my roof. Still clearly fine.

Let's say I put it on my neighbor's roof and run a wire to my TV. Still ok?

Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my WiFi network and transmit the signal using my local area network instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit the signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, but my neighbor won't do this for free. I have to pay a small amount of rent to my neighbor for the space on his roof used by my antenna. I also have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit its signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say, like before, I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal. But, this time, I buy the antenna from my neighbor at the beginning (and, like before, I own it now). Is that okay?

Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal, but now I rent or lease the antenna from my neighbor. Still ok? If this is not ok, which part is not ok? Is it suddenly ok if I replace the internet connection with a direct microwave relay or hardwired connection?

Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a neighbor's roof three houses away. Still ok?

Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a roof on a building five blocks away. Still ok?

Let's say I rent an antenna on top of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle and have the signal sent to me over the internet. Not ok?

The Supreme Court recently ruled Aereo is illegal. Aereo put small antennas in a building and rented them to people. The only thing they did beyond the last thing above is time-shifting, so they would not necessary send the signal from the antenna immediately, but instead store it, and only transmit it when demanded.

You might think it's the time shifting that's the problem, but that didn't seem to be what the Supreme Court said. Rather, they said the intent of the 1976 amendments to US copyright law prohibit community antennas (which is one antenna that sends its signal to multiple homes), labelling those a "public performance". They said Aereo's system was similar in function to a community antenna, despite actually having multiple antennas, and violated the intent of the 1976 law.

So, the question is, where is the line? Where does my antenna become too distant, transmit using the wrong methods, or involve too many payments to third parties in the operation of the antenna that it becomes illegal? Can it not be longer than X meters? Not transmit its signal in particular ways? Not require rent for the equipment or space on which the antenna sits? Not store the signal at the antenna and transmit it only on demand? What is the line?

I think this question is interesting for two reasons. First, as an individual, I would love to have a personal-use over-the-air HDTV antenna that gets a much better reception than the obstructed and inefficient placement behind my TV, but I don't know at what point it becomes illegal for me to place an antenna far away from the TV. Second, I suspect many others would like a better signal from their HDTV antenna too, and I'd love to see a startup (or any group) that helped people set up these antennas, but it is very unclear what it might be legal for a startup to do.

Thoughts?

6 comments:

rif said...

I think you're thinking about it wrong.

As nerds, we want the law to be deterministic and easy to parse --- we like clear simple rules. But in fact the law also seems to have a lot of spirit and intent behind it. If you look at the Aereo ruling, to the extent there was a clear principle behind it, the principle was "Oh, come on. You're only doing that to get around the rules." And when judges see technological solutions that are only designed to get around a rule, they often rule against it, on the grounds that the people who made the rule wanted to have a certain effect and didn't care that much about the specific ruling.

For instance, quoting from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/aereo-analysis-scorecard-715312, "The court disagreed with Aereo, but it didn't analyze the volitional issue at all. Instead, it said that something that looked so much like a cable system is deemed to be doing the performing. That's because, said the court, when Congress enacted the 1976 Copyright Act – the one we still labor under almost 40 years later – it intended that cable systems be held within the Copyright Act's scope. If that seems to be backing into the logical analysis, so be it." So the first perspective is "There is no clear line."

[In this case I think the Supreme Court made a bad choice, but that's irrelevant here.]

So there is no clear line. That said, my best amateur guess would be that it will become illegal once you pay somebody else. This is my best guess because this is the solution that seems to protect the intent of the system with the least intrusiveness.

Greg Linden said...

That's a great article, Rif, thanks. For others, here's an easier to use link to it.

This part of the article gets to exactly what I'm looking at here:

Innovators lose because the Aereo decision makes it harder for them to know where the lines are drawn. The court said Aereo – which allowed users to use RS-DVR technology to transmit programs, from a small antenna to a hard drive and thence via packet on the Internet to mobile devices and PCs – was "substantially similar" to a cable system that uses a single big antenna to transmit programs via cables buried in the streets to television sets. The fact that Aereo also resembled an RS-DVR was discarded. With that much elasticity, how does a technologist know whether her brilliant idea too closely resembles a phonograph or player piano roll and therefore runs afoul of some vastly pre-Internet analysis?

I do think it's worthwhile to look at this from the point of view of a single antenna though. What I want to do is move a single antenna to an efficient, unobstructed location, and possibly see a startup that helps people do that. This looks-like-a-cable-system idea clearly is strange when you try to apply it to a single antenna, and I think there is some insight to be gained from thinking it through. There must be some point where any reasonable court would have to say, no, that doesn't look like a cable system. That point may be all the way at the beginning, but where that point is is worth understanding.

rif said...

But why is that so worth understanding? Ultimately, the entire system is adaptive. If we move to a world where it's basically easy for everyone to get whatever they want over the air, the end result will be the end of over-the-air broadcasting [which I suspect is coming everywhere], not "Everyone gets whatever they want for free."

I'm not saying any particular business model deserves protection. I'm saying that an analysis of how startups can hack antennas that keeps what goes OTA as an assumed given is pretty flawed.

Greg Linden said...

That's a great point, Rif. The laws are flexible and could be revised by the cable companies and content owners to eliminate over-the-air broadcasts if a lot more people started using HD over-the-air broadcasts instead of cable. That's quite a risk for anyone trying to do anything here.

Anonymous said...

The ideal length of an antenna is half a wavelength of whatever the frequency is that it's designed to operate with. If you are making your antenna substantially different than that length then by definition you are optimising for something else, which is grounds for showing intent beyond just receiving the signal.

Roger Ing said...

OK, say my friend has a lousy TV signal because of a hill between him and the broadcast antenna. He pays me to find a house with a clear antenna path. He buys and moves to that new house. Haven't I violated the 'spirit' of the law. I took money to let him to bypass the cable fees. Now he owns an antenna at a different place. I have more money. Cable TV company has less money. Oops, Supreme court says Cable TV company can sue him and me. LOL.