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Major Broadcasters Sue TV Streaming Nonprofit Locast

The four major broadcast networks have filed a lawsuit against Locast, a New York-based nonprofit that streams local broadcast programming over the internet. In their lawsuit, ABC, CBS, NBC Universal and Fox allege that Locast violates their copyrights by retransmitting their programming without permission and compensation, likening it to Aereo, the TV retransmission startup that shut down in 2014 as the result of a similar lawsuit.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report about the lawsuit Wednesday morning,

“Locast is simply Aereo 2.0, a business built on illegally using broadcaster content,” the lawsuit reads in part. “While it pretends to be a public service without any commercial purpose, Locast’s marketing and deep connections to AT&T and Dish make clear that it exists to serve its pay-TV patrons.”

Locast responded to the lawsuit Wednesday morning with the following statement:

“Locast is an independent, non-profit organization that provides a public service retransmitting free over-the-air broadcasts. Its activities are expressly permitted under the Copyright Act. The fact that no broadcasters have previously filed suit for more than a year and a half suggests that they recognize this. We look forward to defending the claims — and the public’s right to receive transmissions broadcast over the airwaves — in the litigation.”

Locast launched in early 2018, and is being operated by the Sports Fan Coalition New York. The upstart has been arguing that it doesn’t need to pay retransmission fees to compensate broadcasters for their programming due to the fact that it doesn’t operate as a for-profit entity. The argument is based on a clause in the copyright act that allows retransmissions made by “a governmental body, or other nonprofit organization, without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage” without licenses or retransmission payments.

Locast can be accessed in 13 metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The service is available via mobile apps as well as on streaming devices like Roku and Fire TV. It frequently asks viewers for donations to cover its operating costs.

In addition to these individual donations, Locast has also gotten substantial support from some of the TV operators, including AT&T. The telco recently donated $500,000 to Locast, and also integrated Locast’s app into its set-top box.

The lawsuit alleges that operators like AT&T effectively use Locast as a pawn in their retransmission negotiations, and points out that the head of the Sports Fan Coalition David R. Goodfriend is a former Dish executive who went on to lobby for Dish on retransmission consent issues. The lawsuit also alleges that Locast was funded in part through a loan from an internet provider run by a former Dish executive.

“Locast not only is securing important commercial advantages for itself, (…) but it is also operating in collaboration with, and for the commercial benefit of, two companies that are among the largest pay-TV distributors in the country,” the lawsuit alleges.

A Dish spokesperson responded to these allegations by sending Variety the following statement:

“Dish has no more links to Locast than we do with over-the-air antennas, but we continue to believe consumers deserve a choice when it comes to how they receive their local broadcast channels, whether through satellite retransmission, over-the-air antennas or through other legal means.”

An AT&T spokesperson sent Variety this statement via email:

“Locast offers consumers an innovative new way to access free over-the-air signals. We support technologies that give consumers more choices and better access to this local content.”

The broadcasters are asking the court to shut down Locast, but the nonprofit is expected to fight back.

Aereo tried to justify its service by renting personal antennas to each and every subscriber, arguing that it was just facilitating personal space shifting of TV programming. The Aereo lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the broadcasters, leading to the shut-down of the service in June of 2014. Aereo’s assets were later bought by TiVo.

Update: Updated with statements from Dish and AT&T.

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