Court gets it right on two tech issues

June 25, 2014 7:38PM

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Updated: July 27, 2014 8:18AM

Television programmers, musicians, authors and other media content providers deserve to get paid. Obviously. Even in these free-for-all pioneer days of the Internet.

In a separate but related matter — because it, too, is a dangerous consequence of rapidly advancing technology — cops should not be allowed to nose at will through the texts, contacts and photos in our cellphones.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed both of these matters, carefully guiding the nation forward by balancing the need to nurture new technology while protecting the rights of content producers and citizens’ privacy.

In one major decision, the court ruled that a new company called Aereo cannot retransmit copyrighted TV programs without paying a fee. In a second decision, the court ruled that police cannot search through cellphones without a warrant.

The Aereo case cuts to the heart of the battle between content providers, who see their livelihoods increasingly threatened, and new delivery platforms that distribute that content without sharing any of the revenues.

It’s a struggle that’s already harmed musicians, moviemakers, authors and others who have seen their work pirated by file-sharing programs, bootleg DVDs and offshore purveyors of unauthorized ebooks.

A year ago, Aereo started streaming broadcast TV programs in a way that customers could view them on phones, tablets or computers — or record them — for as little as $8 a month. That was a handy service for people on the go. But the TV companies could see where that was headed — if Aereo could retransmit for free, why would cable and satellite companies continue to pay fees to retransmit broadcast TV? And if those fees shriveled away, how would the TV companies pay to create that content?

The answer was clear: In the end, a lot of that content would have disappeared, and viewers would have been the losers.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright owners have the exclusive right to “perform” their work publicly. Aereo claimed it was not engaging in public performance, but essentially simply renting out antennas. But the bottom line was the same: Content providers would get less revenue for doing the same work.

In the cellphone case, the court addressed a modern use of an old law that allows police without a warrant to examine items found on a person who is detained or arrested. The law was designed to allow cops to see if an arrested person has a weapon and prevent people from destroying evidence.

Some cops wanted to use that law to paw through data contained in cellphones, which generally are kept close to the body. In 2012, for example, police in San Francisco arrested a protester and then allegedly read his text messages.

Cops wanted the right to use devices that crack open phone passwords and the right to make copies of the information inside. In an age of cloud computing, that also could include information entered through someone’s personal computer at home. Under that scenario, almost nothing would be private.

That is too much of an intrusion. The court rightly told the cops that if they have a credible reason for wanting to dig through a cellphone, they should get a warrant.

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