ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox have secured a victory in their legal fight against Locast, a nonprofit that re-streams their local broadcast stations at little to no cost, much to the consternation of those networks.
Locast is a service that makes local broadcasts free — kind of, we’ll get to that — to those who may be unwilling to pony up for cable or live TV streaming services, or just don’t want to hook up an antenna in their living room. Those four networks are already broadcast over-the-air for free; Locast then uses a legal exemption in copyright law to re-transmit their broadcasts and put them online for people to more easily access. Locast doesn’t technically charge for its service, but it does ask for donations that start around $5 per month.
Essentially, users can use Locast to bypass traditional means of accessing broadcast networks on the super cheap. This hasn’t gone over well with the big four broadcasters, which claimed in a 2019 complaint that Locast’s business was “an acknowledged effort to devalue the entire market.”
This week, a court ruled in the broadcasters’ favor by agreeing with their arguments that because Locast frequently prompted users to donate through interruptions to their programming, and that those costs exceeded “the actual and reasonable costs of maintaining and operating the service,” it was not operating within the boundaries of the exemption. The ruling was made on the grounds that collected funds were being used for expansion, rather than maintaining operation alone. The Hollywood Reporter earlier reported the ruling.
While the case isn’t over, the ruling could potentially imperil Locast’s ability to operate as it currently does.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which joined Locast’s legal defense team last year, said in a statement that the court’s decision “reads the law in an absurdly narrow way,” adding that the copyright’s retransmission exception for nonprofits was written to make local broadcast stations widely accessible. The foundation further said that the ruling threatened access to local news and information for millions of Locast users during a time of “unprecedented” natural catastrophes and amid an ongoing pandemic. It added that it’s evaluating next steps.
“Make no mistake, this case demonstrates once again how giant entertainment companies use copyright to control when, where, and how people can receive their local TV broadcasts, and drive people to buy expensive pay-TV services to get their local news and sports,” the foundation said. “We are disappointed that the court is enabling this callous profiteering that tramples on Congress’s intent to ensure local communities have access to news that’s important to people regardless of their ability to pay. The court made a mistake, and Locast is considering its options.”
Update September 1st, 6:10PM ET: On Wednesday evening, Locast notified its customers via email that it would immediately begin suspending all requests for donations that interrupted programming.
“This means that anyone located in a market we serve who signs up for Locast will get the service without interruption, regardless of whether or not they donate,” the company said. “Of course, it is up to you whether or not to contribute to Locast. But if you currently contribute, we humbly request that you continue to do so. And if you don’t contribute, we hope that you will do so if you can afford it.”