If Brenda M. Cotter was looking for a challenge when she took on the role of general counsel at Aereo Inc., she didn’t have to wait long.
When the New York-based tech company launched its service in February 2012 allowing subscribers to view streams of broadcast television on Internet-connected devices, it was met with almost immediate praise from everyone from The Wall Street Journal to PC Magazine.
Equally prompt was the reaction by the four major television networks: They sued Aereo in federal court for copyright infringement.
On April 1, 2013, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling and rejected the broadcasters’ claims, finding that Aereo’s streams to subscribers were not “public performances” and thus did not constitute copyright infringement.
The case is now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, for Aereo, the buzz — and customer base — continues to grow.
Cotter, whose office is in Boston, recently spoke to New England In-House’s Matt Yas.
Q. What’s the latest on the legal action?
A. We assented to the broadcasters’ request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case this term. The reason that we agreed is because we want the matter resolved on the merits and not through a war of attrition waged by some of the most powerful companies in America against a small technology startup.
Q. What about being an in-house attorney appealed to you?
A. As much as I like lawyers, it’s great to have colleagues with diverse jobs and backgrounds. I love the close day-to-day working relationship with people and the fact that while we all bring different perspectives and skills to the table, we’re all working toward Aereo’s success.
Q. What drew you to the industry and/or Aereo specifically?
A. I’ve been an intellectual property litigator since my early days at Brown Rudnick, so that area of law has always interested me. What drew me to Aereo is the extraordinarily dedicated and talented team of people and Aereo’s mission to create a great product for the consumer. It’s unfortunate that the effort to enable consumers to use a modern version of an antenna and DVR, located remotely in the cloud, has met with so much resistance, but I deeply appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the policy and legal discussions that surround this case. Honestly, I cannot imagine a more interesting job than the one I have.
Q. In such an evolving field, do you feel the legislators and laws governing broadcast rights can keep up with the advancing technology?
A. The evolution of both law and technology are inevitable, and certainly the law will drive changes in technology and vice versa. But the key is making sure that the various impacts are well-understood before making fundamental legal pivots, and also making sure that we balance the various critical interests involved, including those of consumers, technology innovators and those who create content. In our particular case, I would make two comments: First, it’s critical to preserve the rights of consumers to access over-the-air television with an antenna and not to impair that right by limiting it to outdated technology; second, it is so important that companies who innovate in the technology field, or any field, can rely on existing law.
Q. Do you feel the current environment helps or hurts you in your capacity as GC?
A. One of the most interesting aspects of being general counsel for any company is making sure that you are part of the conversation on issues that affect your company. Aereo is just one part of a larger dialogue about how people access and consume media in a changing world with advances in cloud storage, mobile devices and, in our case, advanced antenna technology. This conversation is good for Aereo and good for all of us.
Q. How extensively do you use Aereo in your own home?
A. My family uses our Aereo antenna and DVR, and we also subscribe to cable. A requirement of working at Aereo is to love television.
Q. How important is it for you to maintain contact with the engineers to stay informed on the technological end?
A. Critically important — and it is also one of the facets of being in-house counsel that is the most fun. When I first started, I think our chief technology officer was a little bit concerned about the limits of my math and physics background. But he is a great teacher, and all the engineering folks are very patient with me.
Q. What’s your most important function for the company in 2014? Do you see your role changing?
A. I have a number of functions that are all important to the company, but the most important is prevailing before the Supreme Court and making sure that consumers can continue to take advantage of easy-to-use, convenient and modern antenna/DVR technology.
Q. What do you like to do when you’re unplugged — or, more appropriately, unstreamed?
A. My favorite non-work activity is singing with my daughter in a local multi-generational chorus called Newton Family Singers.
Q. In another life, you would have been … ?
A. I can’t really imagine a better path than the one I am on.