Broadcasters Get a Free Throw in Aereo Case

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are less than a week away in the Aereo case, and broadcasters are feeling pretty good about their chances. With the Department of Justice, Professor Nimmer (who, along with his father, quite literally wrote the book on copyright), and a host of other luminaries filing in support of the broadcasters' position, the storyline looks a lot like broadcasters have portrayed it from the beginning: that this is a simple case of copyright infringement hidden behind a veil of modern technological obfuscation.

Sensing that such a storyline is fatal to its prospects, Aereo has responded by casting this case as an attack on consumers' use of the cloud, and has attracted some allies based on that storyline. However, it is a pretty thin storyline, as few think that the country's highest court is so careless as to draft a broadcast retransmission rights decision that accidentally destroys the world of cloud computing. The two are not tough to distinguish, and even if the Court secretly disliked cloud computing, it hardly needs to opine on the copyright implications of cloud computing to decide the Aereo question.

Still, lower courts have disagreed on these issues, and only a fool enters the Supreme Court certain that the court will rule in his favor. There are many moving parts, and if a case were easy to decide, it would not have made it to the Supreme Court. That is why both sides will be anxiously watching the oral arguments for hints as to where the various justices stand on the matter.

As of today, however, broadcasters have one less reason to sweat about the outcome. The Court announced yesterday that Justice Alito, who had previously recused himself from the case, is now able to participate. This is a significant development for broadcasters. Because the 2nd Circuit decision being appealed was in Aereo's favor, Alito's earlier recusal meant that the case would be heard by the remaining eight justices. That created the risk of a 4-4 tie, which would leave the adverse 2nd Circuit decision in place.

In that scenario, broadcasters would need to win 5 of the 8 possible votes in order to overturn the lower court decision. That can be a tall order, and impossible if it turns out that four justices are firmly on the Aereo side of the fence. With Alito no longer recused, broadcasters now have an additional avenue for scoring that fifth vote. In other words, it's easier to attract 5 votes out of 9 than it is to get 5 votes out of 8. That means broadcasters are unlikely to find themselves losing on a tie vote, and if the rest of the court should split 4-4, Alito's entry into the fray effectively gives broadcasters a free throw opportunity at the buzzer to score his vote and break that tie. Now broadcasters just need to convert on that opportunity.

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