Will ivi Wither on the Vine?

Supreme Court rejection may be the end of the road for the upstart, Internet-based MVPD wannabe.

It looks like the Supreme Court may have dumped a final, fatal treatment of Roundup on ivi, Inc.  In a standard nine-word order (“The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.”), the Supremes unceremoniously rejected ivi’s last-gasp effort to get out from under the preliminary injunction imposed by the federal District Court in NYC two years ago.  As a result, ivi is still barred from operating in the Second Circuit, and its future prospects are decidedly dim.

We’ve reported on several occasions on ivi.  It’s one of a handful of companies seeking to revolutionize television viewing by making broadcast signals available to viewers via the Internet.  ivi’s approach involves a liberal interpretation of the Copyright Act that would allow it to stream television programming directly to your computer, tablet or smartphone.  

ivi claims that its Internet-based streaming operation is the equivalent of a cable system as defined in Section 111 of the Copyright Act.  Under that theory, it has argued that it’s entitled to retransmit broadcast programming without the prior consent of the broadcasters as long as it pays applicable copyright royalties.  The broadcast industry has disagreed, naturally; in 2010, even before ivi started operation, broadcasters peppered ivi with cease and desist letters.  Undaunted, ivi went on the offensive, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking a declaratory judgment that ivi is a cable system under the Copyright Act.  The broadcasters promptly countered with their own suit (alleging copyright infringement) in New York.

ivi’s Washington case was tossed by the judge there in January, 2011.  The following month, the broadcasters convinced the judge in the New York case to preliminarily enjoin ivi from operating pending the outcome of the case.  ivi appealed that ruling to the Second Circuit, to no avail.  In its trip to the Supreme Court it was trying to get the Supremes to lift the injunction.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has denied ivi’s bid for “certiorari” (the high-falutin, legalese term for an appeal to the High Court), it’s looking more like ivi may be exiting the marketplace.  Granted, the Courts to this point have ruled only on the issue of the preliminary injunction, so the case is technically not done – thus far ivi has been told only that it can’t operate pending the outcome of the full lawsuit on the merits.  But things aren’t looking good and that’s usually the death knell for many start-up companies. 

Let’s be clear that I am not reveling in any of ivi’s misfortune.  I distinctly appreciate and support innovation and have argued that Congress and the Copyright Office should consider changing the relevant laws to create a place at the video distribution table for ivi and its brethren. But let’s face facts.  ivi hasn’t operated in about two years, and it’s hard to see how ivi could have raised revenue to keep the fight going; one also has to wonder whether it’s been able to attract funders to its cause in the face of repeated judicial defeats.

Lacking the nutrients necessary for any business to survive, and facing the toxicity of multiple losses on the judicial front, ivi may simply wither away like so many innovators before it.

But even if ivi does wither, other contestants remain in the video-delivery-by-Internet race.  Ivi’s legal theory was, for instance, distinct from the theory underlying approach taken by Aereo and its quasi-twin, AereoKiller. As our readers know, though, that latter approach has received mixed reactions in court, with Aereo preliminarily succeeding while AereoKiller not so much.

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