Articles Posted in Must-Carry/Retransmission Consent

Published on:

There is an old vaudeville routine I’ve found more useful for understanding lawmaking in Washington than any textbook.  It goes something like this:

(Scene: a nighttime street corner illuminated by a single streetlight; a short man (Joe) is frantically searching for something near the base of the streetlight when a tall man (Bill) enters from stage left.)

Bill:  Hi Joe.  Did you lose something?

Joe:  I was buying a hot dog at the cart down the street, and when he was giving me my change, I dropped a quarter.

Bill:  Well if you dropped it down the street, why are you looking here?

Joe:  Cause the light’s better here.

When constituents are unhappy, no matter the cause, they make sure their representatives in Congress know it.  In turn, a good politician knows that the worst possible response is to say there really isn’t anything government can do to fix the problem.  So the legislator promises to take immediate action to remedy the constituent’s complaint.  Often, however, the constituent’s issue lacks a governmental solution, or the only solution would create yet worse problems.

As a result, the desire to demonstrate responsiveness leads to legislation that does nothing to actually solve the constituent’s problem, and sometimes makes matters worse.  However, as long as the legislation relates in some way to the subject matter of the complaint, the legislator can claim to have addressed the needs of his or her constituents.  Rather than face the difficult task of explaining the complexities of the issue to constituents, and why the system is working as intended (or at least better than any of the available alternatives), legislators will search for an irrelevant solution where “the light’s better.”

I was reminded of this last week by an exception that proves the rule.  Chairman Wheeler announced the FCC would terminate without further action its congressionally-mandated review of the Commission’s rule requiring that parties to retransmission consent negotiations negotiate in good faith.  Congress had urged the review in response to heavy lobbying from the cable and satellite TV industries for changes to the retransmission consent regime, as well as in response to complaints from viewers frustrated by their pay TV provider’s programming disruptions.  Specifically, Congress directed the FCC to “commence a rulemaking to review its totality of the circumstances test for good faith negotiations under clauses (ii) and (iii) of section 325(b)(3)(C) of the Communications Act of 1934.”

To understand this mandate requires going back to 1999, when Congress passed the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (“SHVIA”).  SHVIA changed copyright law to allow satellite TV systems to retransmit local TV stations, putting satellite TV on an equal competitive footing with cable TV for the first time.  Cable operators had been retransmitting local TV stations for decades, but the lack of a broad compulsory copyright license for satellite providers meant that most subscribers were ineligible to receive broadcast programming via satellite.

Given the monopolistic power of most local cable systems at the time, there was a concern that cable operators would apply pressure on local stations to withhold retransmission rights from satellite providers to preserve cable TV’s continued stranglehold on the programming most desired by pay TV subscribers.  To address this fear, Congress included in SHVIA a provision that would “prohibit a television broadcast station that provides retransmission consent from . . . failing to negotiate in good faith ….”  That the purpose of this requirement was not managing the negotiations themselves, but ensuring that all new entrants, including satellite TV, had an opportunity to negotiate for broadcast programming, was made clear by three associated facts.

First is that good faith negotiation was strangely required of only the broadcaster; the pay TV provider had no such obligation.  This imbalance of rights would have been unthinkable had the purpose of the good faith obligation been to ensure fair negotiations, but it made sense where broadcast programming was in such high demand that requiring pay TV providers to engage in negotiations with local TV stations seemed entirely unnecessary. Continue reading →

Published on:

This advisory is directed to television stations with locally-produced programming whose signals were carried by at least one cable system located outside the station’s local service area or by a satellite provider that provided service to at least one viewer outside the station’s local service area during 2015. These stations may be eligible to file royalty claims for compensation with the United States Copyright Royalty Board. These filings are due by August 1, 2016 at 5:00 pm (EDT).

Under the federal Copyright Act, cable systems and satellite operators must pay license royalties to carry distant TV signals on their systems. Ultimately, the Copyright Royalty Board divides the royalties among those copyright owners who claim shares of the royalty fund. Stations that do not file claims by the deadline will not be able to collect royalties for carriage of their signals during 2015.

In order to file a cable royalty claim, a television station must have aired locally-produced programming of its own and had its signal carried outside of its local service area by at least one cable system in 2015. Television stations with locally-produced programming whose signals were delivered to subscribers located outside the station’s Designated Market Area (“DMA”) in 2015 by a satellite provider are also eligible to file royalty claims. A station’s distant signal status should be evaluated and confirmed by communications counsel.

Both the cable and satellite claim forms may be filed electronically or in paper form. Electronic versions of these forms are available online at To submit claims, stations are required to supply the name and address for the claimant and the copyright owner, provide a general statement as to the nature of the copyrighted work (e.g., local news, sports broadcasts, specials, or other station-produced programming), and submit at least one example of retransmission as a distant signal. For cable claims, stations will also be required to supply the name of the program, the station’s city and state of license, a date in 2015 when retransmission as a distant signal occurred, and the name and location of a cable system that retransmitted the station to subscribers on a distant signal basis. For each satellite retransmission identified, stations will need to supply the name of the program, the station’s city and state of license, a date in 2015 when retransmission as a distant signal occurred, and the name of a satellite provider that retransmitted the station to subscribers on a distant signal basis. Claimants should keep copies of all submissions and confirmations of delivery, including certified mail receipts.

Claims can also be submitted in paper form. Detailed rules as to how the claims must be addressed and delivered apply. Claims that are hand-delivered by a local Washington, D.C. courier must be filed one hour earlier, by 4:00 pm. Claims may be sent by certified mail if they are properly addressed, postmarked by August 1, 2016, and include sufficient postage. The Copyright Royalty Board will reject any claim filed prior to July 1, 2016 or after the deadline. Overnight delivery services such as Federal Express cannot be used. Stations filing paper claims should verify the proper procedures with communications counsel.

A PDF version of this article can be found here.

Published on:

FCC Chairman Wheeler released a blog post today discussing a number of changes and proposed changes to rules impacting TV and radio broadcasters. While his blog contained good news for the radio industry, TV broadcasters are likely to be less pleased.

On the TV side there are two major initiatives. First, the Chairman is proposing to his fellow Commissioners that the FCC adopt an order eliminating what he termed “outdated exclusivity rules”–the FCC’s network non-duplication and syndicated exclusivity rules. These “non-dup” and “syndex” rules, as they are more commonly known, essentially provide a process by which TV broadcasters can efficiently implement the geographic exclusivity they negotiated in their programming agreements without the need for expensive court actions.  The purpose of these rules is to prevent multi-channel video program distributors (MVPDs) from violating that exclusivity by importing the exclusive programming from out-of-market TV stations.

These rules are of particular importance during retransmission negotiations, since without such rules, MVPDs could import, for example, a distant affiliate of the same network (one which obviously did a poor job of negotiating its own retransmission agreement) to violate the local station’s exclusivity.  With the rule change proposed by the Chairman, the local station could no longer quickly and efficiently resolve the problem by filing a complaint at the FCC. Instead, it would need to initiate a long and costly court battle that would inevitably pull in (1) the distant affiliate, and (2) the network whose contract the distant affiliate breached by entering into a retransmission agreement exceeding that affiliate’s geographic right to the network’s programming.

It’s not hard to understand why an MVPD would like blocking the importation of exclusive programming to be a complex, time-consuming, and expensive proposition for a local TV station, but it’s less clear why the federal government would want to create a less efficient process that further clogs up the courts with multi-party litigation.  The obvious answer is that it is not merely a procedural change, but one meant to alter the balance of substantive rights that existed when Congress created the retransmission consent process.

The second major TV-related item is the Chairman’s circulation among his colleagues of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to review the process used to determine whether broadcasters and MVPDs are negotiating retransmission consent rights in “good faith”. The purpose of the good faith regulations is to determine whether a party is negotiating with an intent other than that of reaching a deal (e.g., stalling for time).  To implement this requirement, the FCC created a list of bad faith tactics that are prohibited (for example, refusing to show up for negotiations), as well as a “totality of the circumstances” test which seeks to determine whether a party’s conduct as a whole indicates that the party has not made “good faith” efforts to reach a deal.

While only cable systems have been found to have engaged in bad faith negotiations by the FCC, the MVPD industry has long sought to alter the traditional meaning of “good faith” in an effort to limit certain negotiating tactics that have nothing to do with whether a party is intent upon reaching a deal.  Indeed, the focus has been on limiting the negotiation options available to broadcasters, even where, perversely, the result would be longer MVPD program blackouts.

The NPRM proposed by Chairman Wheeler, responding to a congressional directive to examine the matter, will apparently seek to alter the FCC’s approach to determining whether parties are engaging in good faith retransmission consent negotiations. Networks, local TV stations, and MVPDs all will no doubt eagerly await release of this NPRM to determine how the FCC’s proposals are likely to affect negotiating leverage and fees in the retransmission consent world–an odd result given that Chairman Wheeler’s blog post said the reason for eliminating the network non-dup and syndex rules is to “take [the FCC’s] thumb off the scales” in retransmission negotiations.

Call us cynics, but we’ll be surprised if “importing a station into a market where that station has no program rights” joins the list of bad faith negotiating tactics, even though it is the epitome of seeking a way around entering into an agreement with the local broadcaster.

From the broadcast industry’s “glass is half full” perspective, the Chairman’s blog post also indicated that the FCC will soon conclude a nearly four-year effort to update the FCC’s station contest rule.  That rule requires broadcasters to regularly describe the material terms of station contests on-air.  After long consideration, it appears the FCC will allow contest rules to be posted online as an alternative to speed-reading contest rules on-air. We earlier wrote about this proceeding at various stages in FCC Proposes to Clear Airwaves of Boring Contest Rules, But State Law Issues Remain and Bringing the FCC’s Contest Rule Up to Date. This rule change has had broad support, and while applicable to both TV and radio, is of greater practical importance to the radio industry, which tends to run more station contests and doesn’t have the option of airing written rules onscreen.

Finally, following up on his promise before the NAB Show in April, Chairman Wheeler indicated that he will also recommend to his colleagues that the FCC move forward with adopting several proposals in the 2013 AM Revitalization NPRM. This was a hot topic at the NAB Show in Las Vegas earlier this year when the Chairman signaled that the establishment of a window specifically for AM stations to apply for FM translators was essentially off the table, as Scott Flick wrote last April. Most considered an AM-only filing window to be the most practical and effective path to AM revitalization, particularly for AM daytime-only stations.  In fact, the outcry in response to the Chairman’s dismissal of that option appeared to have stalled the AM Revitalization proceeding. While it looks like AM radio broadcasters can expect some relief from the FCC soon, most will be watching to see if an FM translator window for AM stations is part of that relief.  Regardless, today is one of those days where you’d rather be a radio station than a TV station.

Published on:

The press has been abuzz in recent months regarding the launch of various Internet-based video services and the FCC’s decision to revisit its current definition of Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs). In December, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), seeking to “modernize” its rules to redefine what constitutes an MVPD. The FCC’s proposals would significantly expand the universe of what is considered an “MVPD” to include a wide-variety of Internet-based offerings. Today, the FCC released a Public Notice providing the dates by which parties can provide their own suggestions regarding how to modify the definition of “MVPD”. Comments are now due February 17, 2015, with reply comments due March 2, 2015.

The Communications Act currently defines an “MVPD” as an entity who “makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.” Specific examples given of current MVPDs under the Act are “a cable operator, a multichannel multipoint distribution service, a direct broadcast satellite service, or a television receive-only satellite program distributor who makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.” The Act states, however, that the definition of MVPD is “not limited” to these examples.

Historically, MVPDs have generally been defined as entities that own the distribution system, such as cable and DBS satellite operators, but now the FCC is asking for comments on two new possible interpretations of the term “MVPD.” The first would “includ[e] within its scope services that make available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple linear streams of video programming, regardless of the technology used to distribute the programming.” The second would hew closer to the traditional definition, and would “require an entity to control a transmission path to qualify as an MVPD”. The FCC’s is looking for input regarding the impact of adopting either of these proposed definitions.

What all this means is that the FCC is interested in making the definition of “MVPD” more flexible, potentially expanding it to include not just what we think of as traditional cable and satellite services, but also newer distribution technologies, including some types of Internet delivery.

Underscoring its interest in this subject, the FCC asks a wide array of questions in its NPRM regarding the impact of revising the MVPD definition. The result of this proceeding will have far-reaching impact on the video distribution ecosystem, and on almost every party involved in the delivery of at least linear video programming. Consequently, this is an NPRM that will continue to draw much attention and merits special consideration by those wondering where the world of video distribution is headed next.

Published on:

Few dates on the broadcasters’ calendar are easier to miss than the deadline for TV stations (and a few fortunate LPTV stations) to send their must-carry/retransmission election letters to cable and satellite providers in their markets. Because it doesn’t occur every year, or even every other year, but every third year, the triennial deadline can slip up on you if you don’t closely monitor our Broadcast Calendar. For those that haven’t been paying attention, October 1, 2014 is the deadline for TV stations to send their carriage election letters to MVPDs. The elections made by this October 1st will govern a station’s carriage rights for the three-year period from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2017, and this will be the first set of election letters that stations must immediately upload to their online public inspection file at the FCC.

I noted in a post here three years ago that the impact of these elections is becoming more significant with each three-year cycle. In particular, that post focused on the fact that network-affiliated stations can no longer consider retrans revenue to be “found” money, but instead as revenue essential to both short-term and long-term survival. Short-term, in that stations must compete for programming and advertising against cable and satellite programmers that have long had two revenue streams–advertising and subscriber fees. Long-term, in that there was little doubt that networks were looking to charge affiliates more for network programming by taking an ever larger share of retrans revenue, and that it was only a matter of time before networks began selecting their affiliates based not upon past performance, but upon which station could bring the best financial package to the network going forward.

As we’ve learned over the past year in particular, that means not just negotiating the best retransmission deals possible, but sending an increasing portion of those revenues to the network. Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker, who will be one of our speakers at the 2014 Pillsbury Trends in Communications Finance event in New York next month, noted that pattern just a few weeks ago. Using CBS’s recent projections on the overall revenue it expects to receive from affiliates, she was able to calculate the monthly affiliate cost for CBS programming at $1.30 per subscriber by 2020. Add to that the station’s costs for negotiating retrans deals, as well as the increasing cost of producing local programming and securing attractive syndicated content, and it is clear that no network affiliate can afford to be cutting substandard retrans deals and hope to survive in the long term. MVPDs may grumble about those “greedy stations” during retrans negotiations, but generating the revenue necessary to retain the programming that attracts cable, satellite, and over-the-air viewers (not to mention advertisers) is not an optional activity for local TV stations.

The impact of this is not, however, limited to purely matters of retransmission. Yes, broadcasters can no longer afford to enter into amateur retrans deals that threaten to alienate their networks by providing below-market rates, or which sloppily authorize retransmission or streaming rights far outside the local broadcaster’s market (this mistake becoming even more consequential if the FCC moves forward in eliminating the network non-duplication rule). The bigger trend is that these economic forces are driving consolidation in the TV industry.

Building large broadcast groups allows co-owned TV stations the critical mass necessary to negotiate difficult retrans deals against the much-larger cable and satellite operators, and, where necessary, to withstand the economic impact of a retrans impasse when it happens. Similarly, larger TV groups are better positioned to negotiate the best possible programming deals with their networks (keeping in mind that “best possible” isn’t necessarily the same as “good”).

Single stations and small station groups routinely have to punch well above their weight by employing smart executives and counsel with deep experience in retrans negotiations to survive in this increasingly harsh environment. That is what makes the FCC’s prohibition earlier this year on certain joint retrans negotiations, as well as current efforts on Capitol Hill to broaden that prohibition, so perverse. By eliminating one of a small broadcaster’s best options for cost-effectively negotiating viable retransmission agreements, the government is pushing those broadcasters to sell their stations to a larger broadcaster (or some would say, to the government itself). In the current environment, a station that fails to sell to a larger broadcaster possessing the skill and mass necessary to effectively negotiate retransmission agreements risks losing its network affiliation to just such a station group, precisely because that group can frequently deliver better retrans results.

So as you send out your elections this year, keep in mind that while the election process itself hasn’t changed, what you will need to do afterwards has changed dramatically. More to the point, think hard about what you need to be doing with your retrans negotiations if you still want to be around in three years to send out that next batch of election letters.

Published on:

July 2014

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • Multi-Year Cramming Scheme Results in $1.6 Million Fine
  • Violation of Retransmission Consent Rules Leads to $2.25 Million Fine
  • $25,000 Fine for Failure to Respond to FCC

Continued Cramming Practices Lead to Double the Base Fine

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against a Florida telephone company for “cramming” customers by billing them for unauthorized charges and fees related to long distance telephone service.

The FCC had received more than 100 customer complaints against the company. The complaints alleged that the company had continued to bill the customers and charge them late fees after they had paid their final bills and canceled their service with the company. The FCC opened an investigation in response to the complaints and issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the company in July 2011, but the company did not submit a timely response. The FCC issued an NAL in 2011 proposing a $25,000 fine against the company for its failure to reply to the LOI, and ultimately issued a Forfeiture Order fining the company $25,000.

Section 201(b) of the Communications Act of 1934 (the “Act”) requires that that “[a]ll charges . . . in connection with . . . communication service shall be just and reasonable.” Prior decisions of the FCC have determined that placing unauthorized charges and fees on consumers’ phone bills is an “unjust and unreasonable” practice and is therefore unlawful.

The NAL provides information from 11 customer complaints detailing instances where customers attempted to cancel their service and continued to be charged late fees and other fees by the company. The FCC determined that the phone company did not have authorization to continue billing these customers after they canceled their service.

Although the FCC’s Forfeiture Guidelines do not provide a base fine for cramming, the FCC has settled on $40,000 as the base fine for a cramming violation. The NAL addressed 20 cramming violations, which would create a base fine of $800,000. However, the FCC determined that an upward adjustment of the fine was appropriate in this case because the unlawful cramming practices had been occurring since 2011, the company did not respond to the 2011 LOI, and there was a high volume of customers who received cramming charges. Therefore, the FCC increased the proposed fine by $800,000, resulting in a total proposed fine of twice the base amount, or $1.6 million.

Cable Operator’s Retransmission of Six Texas TV Stations Results in Multi-Million Dollar Fine

Earlier this month, the FCC issued an order against a cable operator for rebroadcasting the signals of six full-power televisions stations in Texas in violation of the FCC’s retransmission consent rules.

The cable operator serves more than 10,000 subscribers in the Houston Designated Market Area (“DMA”) in 245 multiple-dwelling-unit buildings and previously had retransmission consent agreements with the stations. However, those agreements expired in December 2011 and March 2012. The cable operator continued retransmitting the signals of those stations without extending or renewing the retransmission consent agreements, and the licensees notified the cable operator that its continued retransmissions were illegal. Subsequently, each licensee filed a complaint with the FCC.

In its May 2012 response to the complaints, the cable operator did not deny that it had retransmitted the stations without the licensee’s express written consent, but said that it had relied on the master antenna television (“MATV”) exception to the retransmission consent requirement. The cable operator noted that it had begun converting its buildings to MATV systems in November 2011 and had hoped to complete the installations before the retransmission agreements expired in December 2011, but did not complete the MATV installation until July 26, 2012.
Continue reading →

Published on:

In a 6-3 decision released this morning, the Supreme Court didn’t just rain on Aereo’s parade, but drenched it. For a case involving fairly convoluted points of law, the Supreme Court’s decision is surprisingly straightforward: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, no amount of technology will change the fact that it is a duck.

At this early stage of the case–keep in mind this was just about whether an injunction against Aereo should have been issued by the lower courts for one specific type of copyright infringement–the question before the Court was whether Aereo’s system “performs” broadcasters’ copyrighted works, and whether that is a “public” performance. If so, Aereo’s operations infringe on broadcasters’ copyrights in that programming. Aereo’s argument in response was that since its system does nothing until activated by a subscriber, and even then only transmits a single private copy to that subscriber, Aereo was not involved in generating public performances.

The Court strongly disagreed, finding that an essential purpose of Congress’s passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 was to make clear that transmissions of broadcast programming by third-parties to the public (e.g., cable systems) create public performances that implicate copyright law. Specifically, the Court noted “the [Copyright] Act is unmistakable: An entity that engages in activities like Aereo’s performs,” and “the fact that Aereo’s subscribers may receive the same programs at different times and locations is of no consequence. Aereo transmits a performance of petitioners’ works ‘to the public.'”

Aereo’s argument that it is just a renter of receiving equipment fared no better, with the Court stating: “We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier and that Aereo ‘performs.'” Of note for those concerned about whether an Aereo decision for broadcasters might affect the public’s ability to store other data in the cloud, the Court agreed with the brief filed by the Department of Justice that there is an important distinction between members of the public storing their own content in the cloud and those using the Internet to access the content of others, finding that a transmission to “the public” for purposes of implicating the Copyright Act “does not extend to those who act as owners or possessors of the relevant product.”

However, the most interesting aspect of the decision is that the Court is far more hostile to Aereo than even the 6-3 vote would indicate. Some of the strongest arguments against Aereo are actually found in Justice Scalia’s dissent, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. While criticizing the majority for its “looks like a cable system” premise, in making his best case for finding in favor of Aereo, Justice Scalia makes two telling statements. The first, after he argues that Aereo is just a passive conduit for subscribers’ content reception and therefore does not “perform” broadcasters’ copyrighted content, is his statement noting

“[t]hat conclusion does not mean that Aereo’s service complies with the Copyright Act. Quite the contrary. The Networks’ complaint that Aereo is directly and secondarily liable for infringing their public-performance rights (Section 106(4)) and also their reproduction rights (Section 106(1)). Their request for a preliminary injunction–the only issue before this Court–is based exclusively on the direct-liability portion of the public performance claim…. Affirming the judgment below would merely return this case to the lower courts for consideration of the Networks’ remaining claims.”

Justice Scalia then goes much further, stating:

“I share the Court’s evident feeling that what Aereo is doing (or enabling to be done) to the Networks’ copyrighted programming ought not to be allowed. But perhaps we need not distort the Copyright Act to forbid it.”

He then proceeds to note again that there are other copyright infringement claims before the lower court that should be considered on remand, and that Congress is always free to modify the law to eliminate any perceived “loophole” if necessary.

As a result, while today’s ruling is a 6-3 decision in favor of granting an injunction against Aereo, it ultimately reads like a 9-0 rebuke of Aereo’s business plan. One of the most interesting legal analogies is also found in Justice Scalia’s dissent, where he likens Aereo to a copy shop where the shop owner plays no part in the content copied:

“A copy shop rents out photocopiers on a per-use basis. One customer might copy his 10-year-old’s drawings–a perfectly lawful thing to do–while another might duplicate a famous artist’s copyrighted photographs–a use clearly prohibited by Section 106(1).”

The reason this analogy is (perhaps unintentionally) revealing is that in the Aereo scenario, the subscriber can’t use the system to display his ten-year-old’s drawings; he can only display the content that Aereo puts on the shelf in its copy shop for the subscriber to access–all of which is copyrighted. Even if a particular program has entered the public domain, the broadcast signal–including its combination of program selections, current advertising, and station interstitials–is not in the public domain. In any event, Aereo has never attempted to limit its relay of content to subscribers to public domain materials (which admittedly would be the worst business plan ever).

While there had been some concern among broadcasters (and hope for Aereo supporters) after oral argument in this proceeding that Aereo was gaining traction with its claim that a ruling against Aereo was a ruling against innovation, the Court’s decision states that it sees today’s ruling as narrowly focused on the issue of transmission of broadcast signals, and that parties seeking to expand its principles to issues like cloud computing will have to wait until that issue is actually before the Court. In the meantime, the Court made clear that the only innovation it saw in Aereo was copyright infringement, and that has already been around for a long time.

Published on:

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Aereo case, providing the first indication of how the Justices view the case pitting Aereo against content providers, particularly broadcast networks. For background on Aereo’s technology and the previous lower court cases, Scott Flick of our office has written extensively on the subject, and a variety of his writings on Aereo can be found here. While trying to read the Court’s mind solely through the questions asked by the Justices can be risky, it is fair to say that Aereo encountered some skepticism on its claim to be an innovator and not a copyright infringer.

Given the significant amount of lower court litigation preceding Tuesday’s oral arguments, there wasn’t much in the way of surprises in the arguments made, many of which focused on the question of whether Aereo engages in a “public performance” when it transmits content to paying subscribers requesting that programming. A transcript of the proceeding can be found here. A number of the Justices focused on the question of whether Aereo’s fabled sea of mini-antennas served any purpose beyond seeking to circumvent the Copyright Act of 1976. Chief Justice Roberts noted that Aereo’s system seemed designed specifically “to get around the copyright laws,” and Justice Ginsburg asked Aereo’s counsel if there is any “technical reason” Aereo needed to have 10,000 dime-size antennas to operate, or if it was merely designed that way to “avoid the breach of the Copyright Act.”

What was a bit of a surprise was the extent to which the Justices’ questions focused on Aereo’s strategic effort to cloak itself as just another provider of cloud services. A number of the Justices indicated concern that there might not be an elegant way of ruling against Aereo without risking a ripple effect to cloud-based services, and it was obvious that none were interested in seeing that happen. Justice Kagan sought clarification regarding how Aereo could be distinguished from other cloud service companies, asking:

What if –­­ how about there are lots of companies where many, many thousands or millions of people put things up there, and then they share them, and the company in some ways aggregates and sorts all that content. Does that count?

Counsel for the broadcasters and the Justice Department attempted to respond to this concern, largely reiterating the position taken in the DOJ’s amicus brief:

The proper resolution of this dispute is straightforward. Unlike a purveyor of home antennas, or the lessor of hilltop space on which individual consumers may erect their own antennas . . . [Aereo] does not simply provide access to equipment or other property that facilitates customers’ reception of broadcast signals. Rather, [Aereo] operates an integrated system–i.e., a “device or process”–whose functioning depends on its customers’ shared use of common facilities. The fact that as part of that system [Aereo] uses unique copies and many individual transmissions does not alter the conclusion that it is retransmitting broadcast content “to the public.” Like its competitors, [Aereo] therefore must obtain licenses to perform the copyrighted content on which its business relies. That conclusion, however, should not call into question the legitimacy of businesses that use the Internet to provide new ways for consumers to store, hear, and view their own lawfully acquired copies of copyrighted works.

The catchphrase for this idea in the oral arguments became a “locker” in the cloud, where consumers could safely store their lawfully obtained content, but which would cross the copyright line if stocked for the consumer for a fee with infringing content by a commercial service like Aereo. While a useful analogy, it did not appear to put an end to the Justices’ concern that the line between a fair use and infringement might not always be clear in the cloud. That is certainly true, but it is also true outside the cloud, where copyright questions are notoriously complex and difficult.

Of course, the most interesting aspect of the Court’s diversion into an examination of cloud services is that it is technically irrelevant to the case at hand. It is safe to say that when Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1976, cloud computing wasn’t even a distant dream. Imputing an intent on the part of Congress to draft the law in 1976 so as to neatly exclude such services from what might have then been considered copyright infringement is an unrealistic expectation. As a result, courts have always been faced with the task of applying existing copyright law to evolving applications of technologies, with the understanding that Congress will need to step in and change the law if the results cease to be satisfactory.

Having said that, it is the policy of the Supreme Court to narrowly rule on questions before it wherever possible, and drafting a decision addressing only Aereo without reaching the broader question of copyright law in the cloud is certainly the judicious approach, and what most expect the Court to do when a decision is released this summer.

Published on:

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.

Published on:

I wrote a few weeks ago about Aereo’s Rocky Path Ahead, discussing the legal obstacles Aereo will need to overcome even if the Supreme Court should rule in its favor in the currently pending proceeding. Yesterday, that path became even rockier, when a federal judge in Utah dropped a boulder in Aereo’s path. The resulting sound was that of a thousand tiny antennas splintering against Utah red sandstone, with the judge granting a preliminary injunction prohibiting Aereo from operating in Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

The decision is Aereo’s first major defeat in court, although Aereo look-alike FilmOn X already has two preliminary injunctions against it. The most notable aspect of Judge Kimball’s decision, however, is that he had little difficulty concluding that Aereo’s service was exactly the type of copyright infringement Congress intended to prohibit in enacting the 1976 Copyright Act. Quotable quotes from the decision include “[t]he court … has carefully reviewed each of the prior decisions and has concluded that the California and D.C. district court cases [granting injunctions] as well as Judge Chin’s dissent in the Second Circuit case are the better reasoned and more persuasive decisions ….” and “[t]his court agrees with Judge Chin that ‘[b]y any reasonable construction of the statute, Aereo is engaging in public performances’ when it intercepts and retransmits copyrighted programs to paying strangers.”

As the language above indicates, broadcasters have much to like in Judge Kimball’s decision and really nothing to dislike. In fact, they surely hope that the Supreme Court decision will look a lot like the Utah decision. In that regard, I should mention that TV Technology this week published a pro/con article on how the Supreme Court should rule, and asked me to write the pro-broadcaster analysis. John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge ably handled the pro-Aereo portion of the article which, by coincidence, was published on the same day the Utah decision was released. In reading Judge Kimball’s decision, I was struck by how many of the pro-broadcaster arguments found their way into his decision. For those interested, reprinted below is my contribution to the TV Technology article. If you would like to see the entire article, including John Bergmayer’s pro-Aereo argument, it can be found here.

The Broadcaster Argument Against Aereo

The major argument you hear in support of Aereo is “if a viewer can do it, then the viewer should be allowed to hire Aereo to do it for them.” That logic is flawed for a number of legal reasons too complex to address in this short space, but it is also factually flawed–a truism that isn’t true (i.e., a person can have sex with their spouse, but if they hire someone else to do it, that’s prostitution, and it’s illegal in most places).

More specifically though, Aereo isn’t doing what viewers otherwise do on their own, it is doing what no viewer in their right mind would do–renting a building near the Empire State Building to place their antenna and the equipment necessary to transcode the signal for relay over the Internet, signing up for broadband Internet access at that leased sight so the signal can be transmitted over the Internet, paying for electricity at that site to power the equipment, making regular maintenance visits to keep the equipment operational, and paying higher fees for both the antenna site and home broadband connections because of the broadband speeds and capacity needed to relay nonstop HD broadcast programming.

The reason no consumer has ever done this is obvious–installing a window antenna, buying basic cable service, or just watching Internet video sources like Hulu is both simpler and cheaper. The difference between a home viewer and Aereo is akin to the difference between a recreational fisherman and a commercial fisherman–for good reason, the commercial fisherman is subject to many more regulations, and if the recreational fisherman starts using commercial trawlers and drift nets for fishing, he is no longer a recreational fisherman.

The Supreme Court is not, however, considering Aereo’s general legality at this early stage, but only the narrow question of “whether a company ‘publicly performs’ a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet.” The stakes are markedly higher for Aereo than for broadcasters at the Supreme Court, as a ruling against Aereo would pave the way for an injunction against its service while simultaneously making it very difficult for Aereo to demonstrate in various courts around the country that its service does not infringe copyright. In contrast, a ruling in favor of Aereo, while a significant boost, would still leave Aereo with major legal and factual obstacles to overcome at trial (e.g., does each Aereo subscriber actually have their own antenna and DVR as promised?; do the copies of programs made at the request of subscribers qualify as fair use under copyright policy?). In other words, the Supreme Court’s ruling on this one issue could be devastating to Aereo, but a ruling to the opposite effect won’t resolve Aereo’s other legal issues.

Copyright law can be arcane in the extreme, but to oversimplify the transmission issue a bit, it boils down to this: if Aereo transmits the same content to a thousand subscribers, there is no dispute that each subscriber counts as a public performance of the content and infringes the rights of the copyright holder. Aereo argues however that it is not transmitting the same content to a thousand subscribers, but is transmitting unique content to each of those subscribers, leading to a thousand private performances that do not trigger copyright infringement. Stated in this way, the key question becomes “what is the ‘content’, and how can it be unique for each subscriber?” Aereo’s argument is that since each subscriber is assigned (at least temporarily) its own antenna and hard drive, a transmission of program content from that particular hard drive is unique. This conclusion is counterintuitive at best, since every hard drive copy and transmission of this week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory will be bit-for-bit identical with every other one, undercutting the notion that these transmissions are in any way unique private performances. As Judge Chin pointed out in his Second Circuit dissents in this proceeding, the relevant “content” has to be the program itself, not the bits on a particular hard drive, and since the same program is being distributed to those thousand subscribers, Aereo is transmitting a public performance that infringes copyright. Asserting that “this string of bits is different than that string of bits because they come from different hard drives, even though they are bit-for-bit identical” is just one more reason people make fun of lawyers.

While Aereo asserts that this illogical result is a loophole left by Congress in copyright law, it is not. Instead, it is a loophole created out of whole cloth by overenthusiastic extension of the sometimes tortured logic found in the Second Circuit’s earlier decision in the Cablevision case. Cablevision, however, is a good example of that maxim we learned in law school that “good facts make bad law.” In that case, the subscriber had paid for the content, and the cable operator had paid for the right to retransmit that content. Setting aside its legal reasoning to get there, it was not difficult for the Second Circuit to conclude, in effect, that if everyone in the process has been compensated anyway, and the proposed use isn’t undercutting the market for that content, then what’s the harm of letting a subscriber have their DVR located at the cable headend rather than at their house? However, whenever the law is contorted to achieve a factually attractive outcome, the inevitable result is other parties seeking to apply that same tortured logic to situations with far less attractive facts. Aereo is that case, and the Supreme Court hopefully will be the solution.