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Locast lets you stream local TV for free

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It believes being a nonprofit gives it legal exemption

A streaming service called Locast is trying to revive the dream of Aereo — the legally defeated company that let you stream broadcast TV networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox for a monthly fee — by trying out a different legal approach: giving the whole thing away for free.

Locast, which is highlighted in The New York Times today, is a nonprofit, and it believes that nonprofit status lets it take advantage of an exemption in copyright law that allows for broadcast TV networks to be freely retransmitted. The law makes an exemption for nonprofits to do so, as long as they aren’t making a profit.

The service launched last year and is currently up and running in seven cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Denver. The law limits Locast from broadcasting outside of areas that it physically has an antenna, but if you’re in one of its supported regions, you can sign up right now and start playing local channels from your computer, phone, or Roku.

Broadcast TV networks do not want services like Locast to exist. In 2014, a group including Disney, NBC, Fox, and CBS brought a lawsuit to the Supreme Court to take down Aereo, which streamed free over-the-air TV to its paying subscribers. Aereo argued its service was legal because it set up a new antenna for every subscriber; the Supreme Court said the distinction didn’t matter, since, in effect, Aereo was still broadcasting something it didn’t have the license to. Aereo went bankrupt shortly thereafter.

For now, broadcasters haven’t sued Locast, according to the Times. That may be because they don’t want to find out the answer to Locast’s legality if they don’t have to. The Times reports that Locast has only raised $10,000 in donations and is otherwise being funded off a high-interest loan taken out by its founder. If the service doesn’t get more support quickly, it sounds like Locast will just run out of money.

A win in court by Locast would mean the service and services like it would spread in popularity and usage, depressing the value of broadcast networks’ own streaming services. A win isn’t guaranteed, though. While Locast seems to feel confident about being on solid legal ground, it doesn’t appear that anyone has tested whether the copyright exemption applies when a signal is being retransmitted over the internet. We’ve reached out to Locast for comment.