Court Jumps into OTT Fray

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVIn a really surprising ruling, a federal judge has ruled that FilmOn X should be able to get access to local network programming like a cable TV company. US District Court judge George Wu ordered that FilmOn X be treated like a cable company and is entitled to retransmit broadcaster’s content.

For those not familiar with FilmOn X, check them out on the web. They have a huge amount of  on-line content that includes local TV from around the world as well as 600 other channels. There is a little bit of everything from non-traditional sports, music from around the world, and channels of almost any topic you can imagine. They also carry a mountain of for-pay video-on-demand content that ranges from music to major league baseball. All of the free content is ad-supported. Viewers can also create their own channels.

FilmOn X also had their own version of the Aereo model and they offered a premium subscription model in a few markets, which gave customers access to 120 HD channels on any computer or smartphone through the use of a dongle. Just like Aereo this was done from antenna farms.

The company has been in a battle with the major networks in the US since its inception. The company began carrying the local networks on the Internet in 2010. In 2011 they were ordered by a court to stop the practice. But in 2012, the local channels were all allowed back onto the system through a federal appeal and FilmOn X carried local content on its broadcast dongle product. But in 2013 the US District Court of the District of Columbia issued a nationwide injunction against the antenna service.

This latest ruling overturns that injunction and seemingly gives FilmOn X the same right to content as a cable company. Obviously this is going to be appealed further and one has to doubt that the networks are going to negotiate retransmission agreements with the company while the appeals are still being fought in court.

But the case raises serious questions. Although addressing a different set of issues than the Aereo case, it still sets up conflicting district court decisions. Aereo had taken the legal tactic of dancing around the issue of whether they were a cable company by concentrating on the issue of copyright infringement. FilmOn X took a more direct legal approach and argued that they had the rights to rebroadcast the content as a cable company. And apparently the court bought it.

Realistically nothing is going to happen in the area of on-line content until the FCC decides where it wants to go with this. Recall that in January of this year the FCC opened up a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking to look at the issue of on-line content. FilmOn X was mentioned several times in that document and the FCC is asking if on-line companies can have the same rights as cable companies to get content.

The FCC can put all of these lawsuits to rest by defining the rights, or lack of rights, of on-line providers. It’s fairly clear in reading the NPRM that the FCC has a bias towards allowing content on-line and is probably seeking a legal way to do that since they are required to follow the various cable laws that have been passed by Congress.

It’s hard to think that on-line content providers are ever going to be able to comply with all of the rules included in the current cable regulations. Those rules very rigidly define tiers of programming. They also define the retransmission process whereby cable companies can rebroadcast local content. But there are a ton of other requirements that range from closed captioning to emergency alert systems that also apply to cable companies. It’s going to be a challenge to give just a few of these rights to on-line providers while making cable providers continue to comply with all of the rules.

For now this ruling is just one more confusing court ruling that has defined the on-line broadcast industry so far. There have been several conflicting rulings as part of earlier cases with Aereo and FilmOn X that muddy the legal waters for the business model. But this is something that the general public very much wants and traditional cable will be in a lot of trouble if local content ends up on the Internet. It is that content along with sports that are the primary drivers behind maintaining the cable companies’ grips on customers.

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