Locast loses legal protections that keep its local TV streaming service alive

CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox succeeded in a New York court.

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A company purporting to improve access to local TV stations for people who can’t access the signal via traditional means has been dealt a blow by a New York Court. Locast has lost the courtroom skirmish started by CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, which said that the company was violating their copyright. Deadline reports that the quartet’s request for summary judgment was granted, saying that it couldn’t use its non-profit status as a defense against further action.

The big four, of course, don’t believe Locast’s aims were anywhere near as public-minded as the company made out. The body was reportedly backed, in part, by AT&T and Dish Network, and the networks feel that the whole project was set up as a way of dodging carriage fees. Part of Locast’s defense was that US copyright law allows third parties to boost local signals, and that it acted like a signal booster station.

It’s worth noting that Locast’s founder David Goodfriend, a lawyer and former FCC legal advisor, conceived of Locast in the wake of Aereo’s destruction at the hands of the big networks. A 2019 New York Times profile explained that he had designed the legal situation to be “compliant within the law.” The profile is even titled that the company would “love to get sued” to act as a test-case for the rules.

The court found that Locast’s policy of expanding into new markets runs contrary to the aim of a non-profit, where cash should be used to cover running costs only. Judge Louis Stanton said that the cash raised from Locast’s $5-per-month (don’t call it a) subscription was being used to bankroll further expansion and earned “far more money from user charges than was necessary.”

It didn’t help, that when some TV providers have entered into carriage disputes, Locast has been cited as a way of still accessing that content. As The Wall Street Journal wrote back in 2019, DirecTV and Dish customers were directed to access Locast, although Dish and AT&T both said that this was only because it felt that it was obliged to offer the choice to its users.

By removing Locast’s major legal shield, it’s certainly likely that the project will soon have yet more lawyers on their door. After all, were it to survive, it would be a challenge both to the profitability of the major TV players and encouragement to any future upstarts looking to disrupt the space.

In a statement, Locast said that the ruling was “disappointing,” citing commentary from the EFF adding that the “court interpreted the law in an artificially-narrow way.” The EFF added that “over three million people use Locast to access local TV, including many who can’t afford cable and can’t pick up their local stations with an antenna. This ruling threatens their access to local news and vital information during a global pandemic.” It closed by saying that the ruling “treats copyright law not as an engine of progress but a moat protecting the most privileged position of the four giant broadcasting networks.”

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