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Is Locast Legal? the Battle over Free Live TV Streaming

Is Locast legal? That’s debatable and dependent on who you ask. Locast says it is, but ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC says not so fast.

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Locast is legal. Although legal in this sense might be subject to change due to a court battle with some of the biggest names in the industry, including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. In the meantime, Locast technically remains legal.

What is Locast?

Locast is a service that provides access to television channels over the internet. Although many streaming services offer this, the difference with Locast is that it focuses entirely on broadcast television stations. Therefore, users of the service can only get access to OTA live TV channels that operate locally in their area.

In short, Locast only provides streaming access to the same channels an individual can access for free using over-the-air equipment, such as an antenna.

Can I get Locast?

Whether you can get Locust or not largely depends on where you live. This is a newer service compared to some of the other streaming services and has so far taken its time in becoming available in locations. As of today, the service is accessible in 17 cities and claims to offer access to more than 40 million homes in the U.S.

Locast devices
Locast comes with wide device and platform support

You can check to see if Locast is available where you are by heading over to locast.org

Is Locast being sued?

Yes, Locast is being sued and by many of the major networks. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, collectively are suing Locast over the rights to provide access to their local channels.

Here’s why ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC says Locast is not legal

Major networks typically charge companies to retransmit their channels. This applies regardless of whether its a local channel or not. Although local channels are available for free over-the-air, that type of access is provided by the networks. They are required to broadcast locally and with the right OTA equipment, any individual within reach can tune in and access for free.

Locast live tv guide office
Locast offers local live TV at home and on the go

However, when another company enters that equation and offers to give you access to those same feeds, the situation changes. In this instance, those intermediary companies are required by law to seek permission from the networks to retransmit the channels on their service. As you can probably guess, networks like to charge third-party companies for this and especially as those companies are usually charging the consumer a fee for the convenient access. With access like this being more common over the last few years, the costs have continually increased and this is why consumers have seen the cost of their locals going up so much recently.

From the major network’s perspective, Locast has not sought permission to provide access to channels which also means Locast does not pay the networks any licensing fees. According to the networks, and The Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 (1992 Cable Act), this is illegal. Therefore, Locast is not legal.

Here’s why Locast says it is legal

Consumers can access local channels for free if they live within a radius. If a company wants to come in between the consumer and the network then it needs to pay the network to do so. Sounds simple, right?

However, Locast has so far circumvented the normal chain because it doesn’t explicitly charge customers for access.

Locast is so confident about its position that following the suite from the major broadcasters, Locast responded with a counter-suit, claiming collusion.

Locast countersuit
Locast is suing the broadcasters, claiming antitrust collusion

Locast is a not-for-profit service and is counting on this status for protection under the law. Further arguing its cause, Locast actually says it is doing a public service as it is making local channels accessible to everyone equally. For example, although consumers in the U.S. are legally entitled to access to local channels over-the-air, not everyone has access to these channels.

For some, it might just be a case of not having the finances to pay the increasing rates for local channels, for others, they might not physically be able to access the stations due to issues with quality and reach of over-the-air broadcasting. Whatever the reason, Locast argues consumers are entitled to access and it simply leveling the playing field so that everyone, everywhere, has the option to access local channels.

Essentially, Locast argues that it is a “translator” service. Translator services are broadcast relay stations and act as a way for broadcasters to extend their reach, whether it is TV or radio. The fact Locast is a digital service makes no different in Locast’s eyes. To Locast, it is a “digital translator,” and therefore its Locast streaming service is legal.

Is Locast or ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC right?

Arguably, both sides are right. Everything each side argues is correct and therefore, Locast is both legal and illegal all at the same time which is where all the confusion comes in. Technically, there is precedent for this, although it is debatable as to whether it shines any further light on the situation.

Back in 2012, Aereo launched and this company allowed subscribers to access (and also DVR) over-the-air television on internet-connected devices. If that sounds familiar then it should as it is exactly (minus the DVR) what Locast is currently offering. However, Aereo did not last very long as the service closed down in 2014. The reason was that the service was ruled to be breaking the law.

Aereo live TV 2014
Aereo was similar to Locast but with one major difference

After being sued in a similar way to how Locast has, the United States Supreme Court ruled Aereo’s model of capturing and transmitting channels infringed on copyright law. As you can imagine, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC expect the court to rule in exactly the same way in the Locast case as well.

However, the cases are not identical and the difference may prove to be a significant one. Aereo was a for-profit service. At the height of its existence the company charged consumers a monthly fee with plans starting at $8. Although Locast does not explicitly charge consumers for access, it does heavily rely on “donations” and conveniently, these donations are setup as recurring monthly payments. In other words, you don’t have to pay to use Locast’s service but if you do opt to support the service then you’ll end up paying a monthly donation instead of a fee.

Either way, with Locast relying on a nonprofit status and the fact it doesn’t demand payment for access, Locast will expect the Aereo ruling to not impact its own legal battles as much as the broadcasters expect.

So is Locast legal?

We’ve now come full circle and the answer remains the same as when we first started. Yes, Locast is legal. However, legal in this sense might not be permanent. The problem is there’s no real precedent for what’s happening and this is being made all the more complicated by the evolving nature of TV. While there was a partial precedent with Aereo, the two cases are not exactly the same.

Then again, maybe they are the same.

That’s what the courts will now attempt to decide and what will ultimately determine whether Locast is legal or not.

John Finn

By John Finn

John is the founder of Streaming Clarity and has been writing about smartphones and TV-related services and devices since 2014. John streams everything and genuinely believes the best streaming approach is to bounce between streaming services as needed. Contact John via email at john@streamingclarity.com or on Twitter

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