United States: Post-Aereo: Has The Supreme Court Clouded The Future?

By now, everyone is probably tired of reading the myriad blogs and articles on the Supreme Court's June 25th decision in American Broadcasting Company, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. Yet the real question raised by the decision -- which did not set any bright-line tests -- is what its impact will be on other existing and future technologies that permit consumer end-users to access subscribed content anywhere in the world and at any time over the Internet.

In the 6-3 decision, the majority took a fairly straightforward approach in going through the two primary issues presented: whether Aereo was engaging in a "performance" by using its system of dime sized antennas to deliver one-to-one content to its subscribers, and whether such performance was "public" so as to impose direct copyright liability on Aereo. The court answered both questions in the affirmative, pointing out that even a home user watching television "performs" a broadcast merely by turning on a television and flipping channels, and that Aereo essentially acted no differently than a cable system, even when it only enhanced its subscribers' ability to receive and view over-the-air broadcast programming.

The Court emphasized that Aereo was not merely an equipment provider and, while its system remained "inert" until a subscriber indicated what he or she wanted to watch, Aereo nevertheless was communicating the same content to multiple persons and was thus engaging in a public performance. Noting that in enacting the Transmit Clause in the 1976 Act, Congress had clearly overruled prior Supreme Court precedents that had permitted CATV systems to operate (no issue here), the majority interpreted the Transmit Clause as applying to any entity that acts like a CATV or more modern cable system (conjuring up the adage that "if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck"). Despite Aereo's system remaining inert until a subscriber designates which programming he or she wants to watch, the Court nevertheless equated Aereo's system with the CATV systems outlawed under the 1976 Act.

Consistent with the "looks like a duck" analogy, the Court said that Aereo's "technological differences" only concern "behind-the-scenes" ways in which Aereo delivers television programming to its viewers' screens, and these differences did not render Aereo's commercial objective any different from that of cable companies. Nor did Aereo's system significantly alter the viewing experience of its subscribers.

Justice Scalia's dissent said that the majority analyzed "performance" wrong, because it focused on the overall purpose of the technological system rigged by Aereo as opposed to where the "volitional" conduct was taking place. To the dissenters, the focus should have been on the individual subscribers, who controlled what programming to watch and when the allocated mini antennae would be activated in response to subscribers' commands.

This is where it gets murky. If we were to ignore all technological interfacing between, say, a cloud service provider and its subscribers, and focus only on the "commercial objective" of the provider, then all one has to do is find a for-profit motive in the context of any form of online content delivery, thereby essentially rendering meaningless the volitional conduct requirement for finding direct infringement. The Court doesn't go quite that far. In fairness to the majority, Aereo really was not such a difficult case, because the Transmit Clause covers the transmission of content to individuals at the same place or in different places, and at the same time or in different times, and has always arguably been broad enough to encompass Aereo's system.

Another key distinguishing factor, of course, is that Aereo paid no licensing fees, unlike cable and satellite operators; in the latter case, once a home subscriber lawfully receives fully licensed broadcasts, the subscriber has a fair use right under Sony to record broadcast programming and "time-shift" at will when he or she views that programming. Merely transplanting that mechanism into the cloud (à la Dish Network's "Hopper"), using a technological system developed by a provider, arguably does nothing more than what the individual subscriber is lawfully entitled to do in his or her home.

The majority itself recognized this scenario and threw a comfort blanket to the tech sector by saying: "In other cases involving different kinds of service or technology providers, a user's involvement in the operation of the provider's equipment and selection of the content transmitted may well bear on whether the provider performs within the meaning of the Act." Therefore, volitional conduct on the subscriber end really is not dead. We just have no test for the "may well bear on" assessment. Maybe the duck knows.

Providing some small assistance, the majority made a clear distinction between the specific facts in Aereo and other situations where "subscribers receive performances in their capacities as owners or possessors of the underlying works." Justice Breyers' majority bloc noted that whether a transmission to "a set of people" constitutes a public performance "often depends on their relationship to the underlying work." Courts will continue to grapple with this general guidance in assessing what constitutes being an "owner" or "possessor" and what types of relationships between end users and underlying works remove a content delivery system from the realm of infringing conduct.

Surprisingly absent from the majority's decision was any discussion that the content at issue was free over-the-air broadcasts, which any citizen within reception range could lawfully receive with a digital antenna and a digital-ready TV. It seems that what really irked the Court was Aereo taking commercial advantage of what it viewed as a loophole in the language of the Transmit Clause. The venture capitalists who funded tens of millions of dollars into Aereo (primarily Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp) likely did not do so for some high altruistic purpose (despite some of the press releases to the contrary); they did it to make money and realize significant returns on their investments. Even the dissent said that it did not really like what Aereo was doing, but was bound to apply the provisions of the Act as written; and it was the job of Congress, not the Court, to correct any ill-phrased language in the Transmit Clause.

Absent also, albeit not surprisingly, from the majority's opinion, was any mention of the now infamous Cablevision case (The Cartoon Network LP, LLLP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121(2d Cir. 2008), cert. denied), to which the dissent cited several times with approval. Cablevision involved a remote storage DVR system that was offered to paying subscribers, where the Second Circuit found no direct infringement of the public performance right by Cablevision because its DVR customers were the ones who made the copies carried out by the DVR system. Yet in keeping with its focus specifically on the facts of Aereo, the Court's majority tried to avoid making any overreaching statements or addressing matters that were not directly before the Court. Avoiding any discussion of Cablevision was therefore prudent.

Similarly, in the Dish Network litigation in California, involving Dish's "Hopper" technology called "Sling," the Ninth Circuit ruled last year against the broadcaster plaintiffs. (Fox Broadcasting Company, Inc. v. Dish Network L.L.C., 723 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2013).) The Ninth Circuit specifically found that "operating a system used to make copies at the user's command does not mean that the system operator, rather than the user, caused copies to be made. Here, Dish's program creates the copy only in response to the user's command." Fox News immediately ran back to the Ninth Circuit last week for reconsideration after the Supreme Court decided Aereo.

Certainly, the Aereo Court's majority's opinion was circumspect and cautiously avoided any overreaching language that could impact new technologies, whether cloud based or otherwise. Indeed, with a nod to the warnings identified in various amicus briefs submitted by representatives of the technology industry and the United States government itself, the Court expressly stated that "we have not considered whether the public performance right is infringed when the user of a service pays primarily for something other than the transmission of copyrighted works, such as the remote storage of content." (Emphasis added)

Yet a clear bright-line test was not provided, and we are perhaps left with "if it looks like a duck" gut assessment, which does not make for good law. The decision will undoubtedly keep judges and copyright litigators busy for some years to come. That is, unless the media broadcast industry sits down with providers like Dish Network and others (as NBC is currently doing) to work out reasonable business models that compensate content owners fairly and yet permit the public to receive lawfully licensed content anywhere they want, and at any time, as this is the age we live in and there is no going back. Even the duck would agree.

Originally posted on the New York State Bar Association EASL Blog

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

    Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of www.mondaq.com

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

    Disclaimer

    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

    Registration

    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

    Cookies

    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

    Links

    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

    Mail-A-Friend

    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

    Emails

    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .

    Security

    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions