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.