Posted June 25, 2014
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.