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With Berin Szoka.

TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics will shortly file two joint comments with the FCC, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet—now called “net neutrality regulation”—and why such regulation would be counter-productive as a policy matter. The following summarizes some of the key points from both sets of comments.

No one’s against an open Internet. The notion that anyone can put up a virtual shingle—and that the good ideas will rise to the top—is a bedrock principle with broad support; it has made the Internet essential to modern life. Key to Internet openness is the freedom to innovate. An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive. If the Internet really is “open,” shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships? Shouldn’t the FCC allow companies to experiment in building the unknown—and unknowable—Internet of the future?

The best approach would be to maintain the “Hands off the Net” approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years. That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of “prioritization” are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears. And they should start with existing legal tools—like antitrust and consumer protection laws—before imposing prior restraints on innovation.

But net neutrality regulation hurts more than it helps. Counterintuitively, a blanket rule that ISPs treat data equally could actually harm consumers. Consider the innovative business models ISPs are introducing. T-Mobile’s unRadio lets users listen to all the on-demand music and radio they want without taking a hit against their monthly data plan. Yet so-called consumer advocates insist that’s a bad thing because it favors some content providers over others. In fact, “prioritizing” one service when there is congestion frees up data for subscribers to consume even more content—from whatever source. You know regulation may be out of control when a company is demonized for offering its users a freebie.

Treating each bit of data neutrally ignores the reality of how the Internet is designed, and how consumers use it.  Net neutrality proponents insist that all Internet content must be available to consumers neutrally, whether those consumers (or content providers) want it or not. They also argue against usage-based pricing. Together, these restrictions force all users to bear the costs of access for other users’ requests, regardless of who actually consumes the content, as the FCC itself has recognized:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

The rules that net neutrality advocates want would hurt startups as well as consumers. Imagine a new entrant, clamoring for market share. Without the budget for a major advertising blitz, the archetypical “next Netflix” might never get the exposure it needs to thrive. But for a relatively small fee, the startup could sign up to participate in a sponsored data program, with its content featured and its customers’ data usage exempted from their data plans. This common business strategy could mean the difference between success and failure for a startup. Yet it would be prohibited by net neutrality rules banning paid prioritization.

The FCC lacks sound legal authority. The FCC is essentially proposing to do what can only properly be done by Congress: invent a new legal regime for broadband. Each of the options the FCC proposes to justify this—Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and common carrier classification—is deeply problematic.

First, Section 706 isn’t sustainable. Until 2010, the FCC understood Section 706 as a directive to use its other grants of authority to promote broadband deployment. But in its zeal to regulate net neutrality, the FCC reversed itself in 2010, claiming Section 706 as an independent grant of authority. This would allow the FCC to regulate any form of “communications” in any way not directly barred by the Act — not just broadband but “edge” companies like Google and Facebook. This might mean going beyond neutrality to regulate copyright, cybersecurity and more. The FCC need only assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband.

If Section 706 is a grant of authority, it’s almost certainly a power to deregulate. But even if its power is as broad as the FCC claims, the FCC still hasn’t made the case that, on balance, its proposed regulations would actually do what it asserts: promote broadband. The FCC has stubbornly refused to conduct serious economic analysis on the net effects of its neutrality rules.

And Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has asked whether Title II of the Act, which governs “common carriers” like the old monopoly telephone system, is a workable option. It isn’t.

In the first place, regulations that impose design limitations meant for single-function networks simply aren’t appropriate for the constantly evolving Internet. Moreover, if the FCC re-interprets the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs as common carriers, it risks catching other Internet services in the cross-fire, inadvertently making them common carriers, too. Surely net neutrality proponents can appreciate the harmful effects of treating Skype as a common carrier.

Forbearance can’t clean up the Title II mess. In theory the FCC could “forbear” from Title II’s most onerous rules, promising not to apply them when it determines there’s enough competition in a market to make the rules unnecessary. But the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance.

Most recently, in 2012, the Commission refused to grant Qwest forbearance even in the highly competitive telephony market, disregarding competition from wireless providers, and concluding that a cable-telco “duopoly” is inadequate to protect consumers. It’s unclear how the FCC could justify reaching the opposite conclusion about the broadband market—simultaneously finding it competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. Such contradictions would be difficult to explain, even if the FCC generally gets discretion on changing its approach.

But there is another path forward. If the FCC can really make the case for regulation, it should go to Congress, armed with the kind of independent economic and technical expert studies Commissioner Pai has urged, and ask for new authority. A new Communications Act is long overdue anyway. In the meantime, the FCC could convene the kind of multistakeholder process generally endorsed by the White House to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission. A consensus is possible — just not inside the FCC, where the policy questions can’t be separated from the intractable legal questions.

Meanwhile, the FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually demands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment and competition. The 2010 National Broadband Plan laid out an ambitious pro-deployment agenda. It’s just too bad the FCC was so obsessed with net neutrality that it didn’t focus on the plan. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.

[Cross-posted at TechFreedom.]

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,’” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,’” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

In our blog post this morning on ABC v. Aereo, we explain why, regardless of which test applies (the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test or the dissent’s volitional conduct test), Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. We also explain why the majority’s test is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and why it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

Because that post was so long, and because the cloud computing issue is key to understanding the implications of this case, this post pulls out the cloud computing argument from that post and presents it separately.

In our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

The majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test (the dissent’s name for it, not ours) actually offers a clearer basis for distinguishing cloud services than the dissent’s (and our earlier blog post’s) volitional conduct test.

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn’t dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it’s going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, in fact. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider…. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its users do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released its much-awaited decision in ABC v. Aereo. The Court reversed the Second Circuit, holding that Aereo directly infringed the copyrights of broadcast television program owners by publicly performing their works without permission. Justice Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the Court, was joined by five other Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and the liberal-leaning bloc. Interestingly, Justice Scalia dissented on textualist grounds, joined by his conservative-leaning colleagues Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.

As this split illustrates, debates about intellectual property often don’t break down along partisan or ideological lines, and the division between the majority and the dissent in Aereo focused entirely on how to interpret the copyright statute, not on the underlying philosophical merits of property rights or policy judgments regarding the costs and benefits of stronger or weaker IP.

The majority, relying on both the legislative history and the text of the Copyright Act of 1976, emphasized that the Act sought to foreclose the workaround by cable companies of broadcasters’ copyrights that the Supreme Court had previously sanctioned in a duo of cases—and that Aereo’s conduct was functionally almost identical to the unauthorized retransmissions by cable companies prior to the 1976 Act.

Justice Scalia dissented on two grounds: first, that the majority based its reading of the statute on legislative history, a practice he opposes as a means of divining a statute’s meaning; and second, that the majority relied on a vague and inapt comparison between Aereo’s allegedly infringing conduct and cable companies’ pre-1976 retransmissions of broadcast network programming.

We argue here, building on our amicus brief and our previous blog post on Aereo, that, regardless of which test applies, Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. Moreover, we argue that the Court’s test in Aereo is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and that it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

The Court Adopts (Some of) Our Arguments

In our brief, we reviewed two key Supreme Court rulings that influenced how Congress rewrote the Copyright Act in 1976. As we explained:

In the 1960s, two owners of programming aired over broadcast television separately brought copyright infringement suits against cable companies that—like Aereo—retransmitted television broadcasts of the plaintiffs’ works without compensating the owners. Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S. 390 (1968); Teleprompter Corp. v. CBS, Inc., 415 U.S. 394 (1974). In both cases, this Court found for the defendants, holding that a cable company’s retransmission of a television broadcast signal did not constitute a “performance” of that program under the Copyright Act in force at the time. Dissatisfied with these rulings, Congress effectively abrogated Fortnightly and Teleprompter in the Copyright Act of 1976, defining a transmission of a performance as a performance itself. 17 U.S.C. § 101. Although Congress’s immediate reason for making this change was to bar cable companies from retransmitting broadcast television programs without compensating their owners, the law was written so as to be as future-proof as possible.

We argued that for the Court to find that the Copyright Act does not reach Aereo’s conduct would run contrary to the law’s text and purpose, for Aereo designed its system to evade copyright in much the same way as cable companies operated prior to 1976. The Court agreed with this analogy, holding that:

By means of its technology (antennas, transcoders, and servers), Aereo’s system receives programs that have been released to the public and carries them by private channels to additional viewers. It carries whatever programs it receives, and it offers all the programming of each over-the-air station it carries [alterations, citations, and quotation marks omitted].

Furthermore, in our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

What about Dropbox and similar services? The Court took pains to note that its opinion does not consider “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.” The Court also cited the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, observing that “to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.”

Below, we first discuss Justice Scalia’s dissent, and explain why Aereo’s volitional conduct with respect to copyrighted works sufficed to render the company directly liable for infringement, even under Scalia’s standard. We next discuss the implications for cloud computing, and explain why the Court’s test may in fact be clearer than the volitional conduct test, actually offering more legal protection for cloud computing than the dissent’s standard would.

Aereo Is Liable for Copyright Infringement Under the Volitional Conduct Test

Scalia, ever the critic of judges relying on legislative history and exercising too much discretion over substantive law, rejected what he called the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” standard. Instead, he argued that the Court should adopt the volitional conduct test used by various federal appellate courts, writing that “[a] defendant may be held directly liable only if it has engaged in volitional conduct that violates the Act.”

Scalia then asserted that Aereo is more like a copy shop than a video-on-demand service, because Aereo allows its customers to choose which programs they view and when to activate the copying function. Therefore, Scalia argued, Aereo “plays no role in selecting the content, [and] cannot be held directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy.” Distinguishing Aereo’s conduct from that of Netflix, Scalia noted that the latter company’s “selection and arrangement [of content] constitutes a volitional act directed to specific copyrighted works and thus serves as a basis for direct liability” (or would so serve if Netflix lacked the requisite licenses).

Yet even if Justice Scalia is right that the volitional conduct test would be easier for courts to apply in future cases than the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test—and, as we discuss below, we believe this widely-held view is incorrect—it does not follow that the dissent properly applied the volitional conduct test to Aereo.

First, Aereo does in fact “curate” the content it offers, in several respects. In its attempt to drive a Mack truck through the 2nd Circuit’s holding in Cartoon Network that a cable company doesn’t publicly perform works by offering its users remote DVR service, Aereo built a business model around over-the-air television content—which represents only a small fraction of the content Aereo could have obtained from free, publicly accessible sources (e.g, the Internet). Aereo also selected the cities in which it installed the dime-sized antennas that pick up over-the-air programming.

Perhaps most importantly, as far as we can tell, Aereo does not offer all the ATSC broadcasts transmitted over-the-air in the cities where the service is available. In New York, for example, Aereo claims to offer 16 channels (and several virtual sub-channels), but it doesn’t claim to offer such channels as WMBQ-CD, WDVB-CD, WNYZ-LP, or WASA-LD—all of which are broadcast over-the-air throughout central New York, according to AntennaWeb. Meanwhile, Aereo does offer Bloomberg TV—a non-broadcast channel for which Aereo voluntarily sought and acquired licenses to retransmit.

Second, evaluating whether Aereo’s actions to make available over-the-air programming embody sufficient volition to render the company itself—as opposed to its users—directly responsible for performing broadcast television turns on more than the extent to which Aereo curated its offerings. As the Court explained, Aereo built a complex system of “antennas, transcoders, and servers” for the sole purpose of monetizing broadcast television shows. In “providing this service,” the Court noted, “Aereo uses its own equipment, housed in a centralized warehouse, outside of its users’ homes.” If Aereo merely bought some office space near the top of a New York skyscraper, along with some general-purpose servers connected to the Internet via fiber-optic broadband, the company could certainly rent out these assets to the general public without facing any liability for directly publicly performing copyrighted broadcast programs. Even if some of Aereo’s subscribers placed tiny antennas in their allocated spaces and configured their server instances to stream broadcast television to themselves, Aereo would—at the very worst—face liability for vicarious copyright infringement. But this is not how Aereo operated.

Aereo has, in other words, actually taken numerous “volitional” steps to make available copyrighted content to its subscribers. And while it also offers some services ancillary to the transmission of content (most notably remote-DVR functionality), it offers those as adjuncts to its core function of transmission, not as standalone services.

Had Aereo prevailed, the company and its competitors would likely have pursued other technical workarounds to monetize other types of copyrighted works without their owners’ permission. Although Aereo chose to start with over-the-air broadcast programming—presumably because it could plausibly argue that its subscribers already had an implied right to view over-the-air broadcasts—broadcast television is hardly the only form of valuable content that the public can lawfully access free of charge in one way or another. What about cable television networks that stream some of their shows online for free? Or news websites that allow unauthenticated users to access a limited number of stories free of charge each month? If Aereo had convinced the Court to bless its business model, it would have sent copyright owners a very clear message: don’t publicly distribute your works in any format, or else.

The Court’s Holding Doesn’t Imperil Cloud Services

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn’t dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it’s going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, as we note above. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider…. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its user do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.

Conclusion

Strange bedfellows aside, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit and adopted a rationale similar to the one we articulated in our amicus brief. Even under the volitional conduct test advocated by Scalia in his dissenting opinion, Aereo should lose, just as we argued in our previous post on the issue. This will not be the last time the Court wrestles with applying the nearly 40 year-old Copyright Act to novel technology, but Aereo stands little chance of undermining the cloud computing sector. Although the great IP debate will surely continue, this much is settled law: You cannot build a business model around the idea of rebroadcasting copyrighted network content without paying for it.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny.  In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”

So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion.  May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees?  That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide.  As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter:  Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?

In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law.  Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views.  The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form.  Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.

In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons.  Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.

Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:

  • Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.

Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe.  Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them.  “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise.  When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”

  • Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.

This claim is simply false.  First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation.  Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations.  Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise.  Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):

A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960.  For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly.  A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law.  Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays.  A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law.  Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture.  New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday.  A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups.  A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food.  Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores.  The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice.  Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.

As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.

  • Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.

The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons.  They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.”  In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”

But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms.  As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing:  Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections.  From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise.  A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations.   Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.”  Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”

  • Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.

The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity.  They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.  A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”

As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations.  Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated.  The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.”  But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith.  “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held.  Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”

***

In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act.  I’ll let you read that one on your own.

I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue.  Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’  amicus brief.  Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.

Read it all before SCOTUS rules!

[The following is a guest post by Thomas McCarthy on the Supreme Court's recent Amex v. Italian Colors Restaurant decision. Tom is a partner at Wiley Rein, LLP and a George Mason Law grad. He is/was also counsel for, among others,

So he's had a busy week....]

The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (June 20, 2013) (“Amex”) is a resounding victory for freedom-of-contract principles.  As it has done repeatedly in recent terms (see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011); Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown (2012)), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) makes arbitration “a matter of contract,” requiring courts to “rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 3.  In so doing, it rejected the theory that class procedures must remain available to claimants in order to ensure that they have sufficient financial incentive to prosecute federal statutory claims of relatively low value.  Consistent with the freedom-of-contract principles enshrined in the FAA, an arbitration agreement must be enforced—even if the manner in which the parties agreed to arbitrate leaves would-be claimants with low-value claims that are not worth pursuing.

In Amex, merchants who accept American Express cards filed a class action against Amex, asserting that Amex violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by “us[ing] its monopoly power in the market for charge cards to force merchants to accept credit cards at rates approximately 30% higher than the fees for competing credit cards.”  Amex at 1-2.  And, of course, the merchants sought treble damages for the class under Section 4 of the Clayton Act.  Under the terms of their agreement with American Express, the merchants had agreed to resolve all disputes via individual arbitration, that is, without the availability of class procedures.  Consistent with that agreement, American Express moved to compel individual arbitration, but the merchants countered that the costs of expert analysis necessary to prove their antitrust claims would greatly exceed the maximum recovery for any individual plaintiff, thereby precluding them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights under the Sherman Act.  The Second Circuit sided with the merchants, holding that the prohibitive costs the merchants would face if they had to arbitrate on an individual basis rendered the class-action waiver in the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

In a 5-3 majority (per Justice Scalia), the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court began by highlighting the Federal Arbitration Act’s freedom-of-contract mandate—that “courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms, including terms that specify with whom [the parties] choose to arbitrate their disputes, and the rules under which that arbitration will be conducted.”  Amex at 2-3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  It emphasized that this mandate applies even to federal statutory claims, “unless the FAA’s mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command.”  Amex at 3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The Court then briefly explained that no contrary congressional command exists in either the federal antitrust laws or Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which allows for class actions in certain circumstances).

Next, the Court turned to the merchants’ principal argument—that the arbitration agreement should not be enforced because enforcing it (including its class waiver provision) would preclude plaintiffs from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights.  The Court noted that this “effective vindication” exception “originated as dictum” in prior cases and that the Court has only “asserted [its] existence” without ever having applied it in any particular case.  Amex at 6.  The Court added that this exception grew out of a desire to prevent a “prospec­tive waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory reme­dies,” explaining that it “would certainly cover a provision in an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights.”  The Court added that this exception might “perhaps cover filing and administrative fees attached to arbitration that are so high as to make access to the forum impracticable,” Amex at 6, but emphasized that, whatever the scope of this exception, the fact that the manner of arbitration the parties contracted for might make it “not worth the expense” to pursue a statutory remedy “does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.”  Amex at 7.

The Court closed by noting that its previous decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion “all but resolves this case.”  Amex at 8.  In Concepcion, the Court had invalidated a state law “conditioning enforcement of arbitration on the availability of class procedures because that law ‘interfere[d] with fundamental attributes of arbitration.’”   As the Court explained, Concepcion specifically rejected the argument “that class arbitration was necessary to prosecute claims ‘that might otherwise slip through the legal system’” thus establishing “that the FAA’s command to enforce arbitration agreements trumps any interest in ensuring the prosecution of low value claims.”  Amex at 9 (quoting Concepcion).  The Court made clear that, under the FAA, courts are to hold parties to the deal they struck—arbitration pursuant to the terms of their arbitration agreements, even if that means that certain claims may go unprosecuted.  Responding to a dissent penned by Justice Kagan, who complained that the Court’s decision would lead to “[l]ess arbitration,” contrary to the pro-arbitration policies of the FAA, Amex dissent at 5, the Court doubled down on this point, emphasizing that the FAA “favor[s] the absence of litigation when that is the consequence of a class-action waiver, since its ‘principal purpose’ is the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 9 n.5 (emphasis added).

By holding parties to the deal they struck regarding the resolution of their disputes, the Court properly vindicates the FAA’s freedom-of-contract mandates.  And even assuming the dissenters are correct that there will be less arbitration in individual instances, the opposite is true on a macro level.  For where there is certainty in contract enforcement, parties will enter into contracts.  Amex thus should promote arbitration by eliminating uncertainty in contracting and thereby removing a barrier to swift and efficient resolution of disputes.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday closed its investigation of Google’s search business (see my comment here) without taking action. The FTC did, however, enter into a settlement with Google over the licensing of Motorola Mobility’s standards-essential patents (SEPs). The FTC intends that agreement to impose some limits on an area of great complexity and vigorous debate among industry, patent experts and global standards bodies: The allowable process for enforcing FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing of SEPs, particularly the use of injunctions by patent holders to do so. According to Chairman Leibowitz, “[t]oday’s landmark enforcement action will set a template for resolution of SEP licensing disputes across many industries.” That effort may or may not be successful. It also may be misguided.

In general, a FRAND commitment incentivizes innovation by allowing a SEP owner to recoup its investments and the value of its technology through licensing, while, at the same, promoting competition and avoiding patent holdup by ensuring that licensing agreements are reasonable. When the process works, and patent holders negotiate licensing rights in good faith, patents are licensed, industries advance and consumers benefit.

FRAND terms are inherently indeterminate and flexible—indeed, they often apply precisely in situations where licensors and licensees need flexibility because each licensing circumstance is nuanced and a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t workable. Superimposing process restraints from above isn’t necessarily the best thing in dealing with what amounts to a contract dispute. But few can doubt the benefits of greater clarity in this process; the question is whether the FTC’s particular approach to the problem sacrifices too much in exchange for such clarity.

The crux of the issue in the Google consent decree—and the most controversial aspect of SEP licensing negotiations—is the role of injunctions. The consent decree requires that, before Google sues to enjoin a manufacturer from using its SEPs without a license, the company must follow a prescribed path in licensing negotiations. In particular:

Under this Order, before seeking an injunction on FRAND-encumbered SEPs, Google must: (1) provide a potential licensee with a written offer containing all of the material license terms necessary to license its SEPs, and (2) provide a potential licensee with an offer of binding arbitration to determine the terms of a license that are not agreed upon. Furthermore, if a potential licensee seeks judicial relief for a FRAND determination, Google must not seek an injunction during the pendency of the proceeding, including appeals.

There are a few exceptions, summarized by Commissioner Ohlhausen:

These limitations include when the potential licensee (a) is outside the jurisdiction of the United States; (b) has stated in writing or sworn testimony that it will not license the SEP on any terms [in other words, is not a “willing licensee”]; (c) refuses to enter a license agreement on terms set in a final ruling of a court – which includes any appeals – or binding arbitration; or (d) fails to provide written confirmation to a SEP owner after receipt of a terms letter in the form specified by the Commission. They also include certain instances when a potential licensee has brought its own action seeking injunctive relief on its FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

To the extent that the settlement reinforces what Google (and other licensors) would do anyway, and even to the extent that it imposes nothing more than an obligation to inject a neutral third party into FRAND negotiations to assist the parties in resolving rate disputes, there is little to complain about. Indeed, this is the core of the agreement, and, importantly, it seems to preserve Google’s right to seek injunctions to enforce its patents, subject to the agreement’s process requirements.

Industry participants and standard-setting organizations have supported injunctions, and the seeking and obtaining of injunctions against infringers is not in conflict with SEP patentees’ obligations. Even the FTC, in its public comments, has stated that patent owners should be able to obtain injunctions on SEPs when an infringer has rejected a reasonable license offer. Thus, the long-anticipated announcement by the FTC in the Google case may help to provide some clarity to the future negotiation of SEP licenses, the possible use of binding arbitration, and the conditions under which seeking injunctive relief will be permissible (as an antitrust matter).

Nevertheless, U.S. regulators, including the FTC, have sometimes opined that seeking injunctions on products that infringe SEPs is not in the spirit of FRAND. Everyone seems to agree that more certainty is preferable; the real issue is whether and when injunctions further that aim or not (and whether and when they are anticompetitive).

In October, Renata Hesse, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, remarked during a patent roundtable that

[I]t would seem appropriate to limit a patent holder’s right to seek an injunction to situations where the standards implementer is unwilling to have a neutral third-party determine the appropriate F/RAND terms or is unwilling to accept the F/RAND terms approved by such a third-party.

In its own 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the fluidity and ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “reasonable” licensing terms and the problems of patent enforcement. While noting that injunctions may confer a costly “hold-up” power on licensors that wield them, the FTC nevertheless acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation:

Three characteristics of injunctions that affect innovation support generally granting an injunction. The first and most fundamental is an injunction’s ability to preserve the exclusivity that provides the foundation of the patent system’s incentives to innovate. Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements.

* * *

But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.…

Consistent with this view, the European Commission’s Deputy Director-General for Antitrust, Cecilio Madero Villarejo, recently expressed concern that some technology companies that complain of being denied a license on FRAND terms never truly intend to acquire licenses, but rather “want[] to create conditions for a competition case to be brought.”

But with the Google case, the Commission appears to back away from its seeming support for injunctions, claiming that:

Seeking and threatening injunctions against willing licensees of FRAND-encumbered SEPs undermines the integrity and efficiency of the standard-setting process and decreases the incentives to participate in the process and implement published standards. Such conduct reduces the value of standard setting, as firms will be less likely to rely on the standard-setting process.

Reconciling the FTC’s seemingly disparate views turns on the question of what a “willing licensee” is. And while the Google settlement itself may not magnify the problems surrounding the definition of that term, it doesn’t provide any additional clarity, either.

The problem is that, even in its 2011 Report, in which FTC noted the importance of injunctions, it defines a willing licensee as one who would license at a hypothetical, ex ante rate absent the threat of an injunction and with a different risk profile than an after-the-fact infringer. In other words, the FTC’s definition of willing licensee assumes a willingness to license only at a rate determined when an injunction is not available, and under the unrealistic assumption that the true value of a SEP can be known ex ante. Not surprisingly, then, the Commission finds it easy to declare an injunction invalid when a patentee demands a (higher) royalty rate in an actual negotiation, with actual knowledge of a patent’s value and under threat of an injunction.

As Richard Epstein, Scott Kieff and Dan Spulber discuss in critiquing the FTC’s 2011 Report:

In short, there is no economic basis to equate a manufacturer that is willing to commit to license terms before the adoption and launch of a standard, with one that instead expropriates patent rights at a later time through infringement. The two bear different risks and the late infringer should not pay the same low royalty as a party that sat down at the bargaining table and may actually have contributed to the value of the patent through its early activities. There is no economically meaningful sense in which any royalty set higher than that which a “willing licensee would have paid” at the pre-standardization moment somehow “overcompensates patentees by awarding more than the economic value of the patent.”

* * *

Even with a RAND commitment, the patent owner retains the valuable right to exclude (not merely receive later compensation from) manufacturers who are unwilling to accept reasonable license terms. Indeed, the right to exclude influences how those terms should be calculated, because it is quite likely that prior licensees in at least some areas will pay less if larger numbers of parties are allowed to use the same technology. Those interactive effects are ignored in the FTC calculations.

With this circular logic, all efforts by patentees to negotiate royalty rates after infringement has occurred can be effectively rendered anticompetitive if the patentee uses an injunction or the threat of an injunction against the infringer to secure its reasonable royalty.

The idea behind FRAND is rather simple (reward inventors; protect competition), but the practice of SEP licensing is much more complicated. Circumstances differ from case to case, and, more importantly, so do the parties’ views on what may constitute an appropriate licensing rate under FRAND. As I have written elsewhere, a single company may have very different views on the meaning of FRAND depending on whether it is the licensor or licensee in a given negotiation—and depending on whether it has already implemented a standard or not. As one court looking at the very SEPs at issue in the Google case has pointed out:

[T]he court is mindful that at the time of an initial offer, it is difficult for the offeror to know what would in fact constitute RAND terms for the offeree. Thus, what may appear to be RAND terms from the offeror’s perspective may be rejected out-of-pocket as non-RAND terms by the offeree. Indeed, it would appear that at any point in the negotiation process, the parties may have a genuine disagreement as to what terms and conditions of a license constitute RAND under the parties’ unique circumstances.

The fact that many firms engaged in SEP negotiations are simultaneously and repeatedly both licensors and licensees of patents governed by multiple SSOs further complicates the process—but also helps to ensure that it will reach a conclusion that promotes innovation and ensures that consumers reap the rewards.

In fact, an important issue in assessing the propriety of injunctions is the recognition that, in most cases, firms would rather license their patents and receive royalties than exclude access to their IP and receive no compensation (and incur the costs of protracted litigation, to boot). Importantly, for firms that both license out their own patents and license in those held by other firms (the majority of IT firms and certainly the norm for firms participating in SSOs), continued interactions on both sides of such deals help to ensure that licensing—not withholding—is the norm.

Companies are waging the smartphone patent wars with very different track records on SSO participation. Apple, for example, is relatively new to the mobile communications space and has relatively few SEPs, while other firms, like Samsung, are long-time players in the space with histories of extensive licensing (in both directions). But, current posturing aside, both firms have an incentive to license their patents, as Mark Summerfield notes:

Apple’s best course of action will most likely be to enter into licensing agreements with its competitors, which will not only result in significant revenues, but also push up the prices (or reduce the margins) on competitive products.

While some commentators make it sound as if injunctions threaten to cripple smartphone makers by preventing them from licensing essential technology on viable terms, companies in this space have been perfectly capable of orchestrating large-scale patent licensing campaigns. That these may increase costs to competitors is a feature—not a bug—of the system, representing the return on innovation that patents are intended to secure. Microsoft has wielded its sizeable patent portfolio to drive up the licensing fees paid by Android device manufacturers, and some commentators have even speculated that Microsoft makes more revenue from Android than Google does. But while Microsoft might prefer to kill Android with its patents, given the unlikeliness of this, as MG Siegler notes,

[T]he next best option is to catch a free ride on the Android train. Patent licensing deals already in place with HTC, General Dynamics, and others could mean revenues of over $1 billion by next year, as Forbes reports. And if they’re able to convince Samsung to sign one as well (which could effectively force every Android partner to sign one), we could be talking multiple billions of dollars of revenue each year.

Hand-wringing about patents is the norm, but so is licensing, and your smartphone exists, despite the thousands of patents that read on it, because the firms that hold those patents—some SEPs and some not—have, in fact, agreed to license them.

The inability to seek an injunction against an infringer, however, would ensure instead that patentees operate with reduced incentives to invest in technology and to enter into standards because they are precluded from benefiting from any subsequent increase in the value of their patents once they do so. As Epstein, Kieff and Spulber write:

The simple reality is that before a standard is set, it just is not clear whether a patent might become more or less valuable. Some upward pressure on value may be created later to the extent that the patent is important to a standard that is important to the market. In addition, some downward pressure may be caused by a later RAND commitment or some other factor, such as repeat play. The FTC seems to want to give manufacturers all of the benefits of both of these dynamic effects by in effect giving the manufacturer the free option of picking different focal points for elements of the damages calculations. The patentee is forced to surrender all of the benefit of the upward pressure while the manufacturer is allowed to get all of the benefit of the downward pressure.

Thus the problem with even the limited constraints imposed by the Google settlement: To the extent that the FTC’s settlement amounts to a prohibition on Google seeking injunctions against infringers unless the company accepts the infringer’s definition of “reasonable,” the settlement will harm the industry. It will reinforce a precedent that will likely reduce the incentives for companies and individuals to innovate, to participate in SSOs, and to negotiate in good faith.

Contrary to most assumptions about the patent system, it needs stronger, not weaker, property rules. With a no-injunction rule (whether explicit or de facto (as the Google settlement’s definition of “willing licensee” unfolds)), a potential licensee has little incentive to negotiate with a patent holder and can instead refuse to license, infringe, try its hand in court, avoid royalties entirely until litigation is finished (and sometimes even longer), and, in the end, never be forced to pay a higher royalty than it would have if it had negotiated before the true value of the patents was known.

Flooding the courts and discouraging innovation and peaceful negotiations hardly seem like benefits to the patent system or the market. Unfortunately, the FTC’s approach to SEP licensing exemplified by the Google settlement may do just that. Continue Reading…

For those who follow these things (and for those who don’t but should!), Eric Goldman just posted an excellent short essay on Section 230 immunity and account terminations.

Here’s the abstract:

An online provider’s termination of a user’s online account can be a major-and potentially even life-changing-event for the user. Account termination exiles the user from a virtual place the user wanted to be; termination disrupts any social network relationship ties in that venue, and prevents the user from sending or receiving messages there; and the user loses any virtual assets in the account, which could be anything from archived emails to accumulated game assets. The effects of account termination are especially acute in virtual worlds, where dedicated users may be spending a majority of their waking hours or have aggregated substantial in-game wealth. However, the problem arises in all online environments (including email, social networking and web hosting) where account termination disrupts investments made by users.

Because of the potentially significant consequences from online user account termination, user-rights advocates, especially in the virtual world context, have sought legal restrictions on online providers’ discretion to terminate users. However, these efforts are largely misdirected because of 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2) (“Section 230(c)(2)”), a federal statutory immunity. This essay, written in conjunction with an April 2011 symposium at UC Irvine entitled “Governing the Magic Circle: Regulation of Virtual Worlds,” explains Section 230(c)(2)’s role in immunizing online providers’ decisions to terminate user accounts. It also explains why this immunity is sound policy.

But the meat of the essay (at least the normative part of the essay) is this:

Online user communities inevitably require at least some provider intervention. At times, users need “protection” from other users. The provider can give users self-help tools to reduce their reliance on the online provider’s intervention, but technological tools cannot ameliorate all community-damaging conduct by determined users. Eventually, the online provider needs to curb a rogue user’s behavior to protect the rest of the community. Alternatively, a provider may need to respond to users who are jeopardizing the site’s security or technical infrastructure. . . .  Section 230(c)(2) provides substantial legal certainty to online providers who police their premises and ensure the community’s stability when intervention is necessary.

* * *

Thus, marketplace incentives work unexpectedly well to discipline online providers from capriciously wielding their termination power. This is true even if many users face substantial nonrecoupable or switching costs, both financially and in terms of their social networks. Some users, both existing and prospective, can be swayed by the online provider’s capriciousness—and by the provider’s willingness to oust problem users who are disrupting the community. The online provider’s desire to keep these swayable users often can provide enough financial incentives for the online provider to make good choices.

Thus, broadly conceived, § 230(c)(2) removes legal regulation of an online provider’s account termination, making the marketplace the main governance mechanism over an online provider’s choices. Fortunately, the marketplace is effective enough to discipline those choices.

Eric doesn’t talk explicitly here about property rights and transaction costs, but that’s what he’s talking about.  Well-worth reading as a short, clear, informative introduction to this extremely important topic.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.

The DOJ’s recent press release on the Google/Motorola, Rockstar Bidco, and Apple/ Novell transactions struck me as a bit odd when I read it.  As I’ve now had a bit of time to digest it, I’ve grown to really dislike it.  For those who have not followed Jorge Contreras had an excellent summary of events at Patently-O.

For those of us who have been following the telecom patent battles, something remarkable happened a couple of weeks ago.  On February 7, the Wall St. Journal reported that, back in November, Apple sent a letter[1] to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) setting forth Apple’s position regarding its commitment to license patents essential to ETSI standards.  In particular, Apple’s letter clarified its interpretation of the so-called “FRAND” (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing terms that ETSI participants are required to use when licensing standards-essential patents.  As one might imagine, the actual scope and contours of FRAND licenses have puzzled lawyers, regulators and courts for years, and past efforts at clarification have never been very successful.  The next day, on February 8, Google released a letter[2] that it sent to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), ETSI and several other standards organizations.  Like Apple, Google sought to clarify its position on FRAND licensing.  And just hours after Google’s announcement, Microsoft posted a statement of “Support for Industry Standards”[3] on its web site, laying out its own gloss on FRAND licensing.  For those who were left wondering what instigated this flurry of corporate “clarification”, the answer arrived a few days later when, on February 13, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its decision[4] to close the investigation of three significant patent-based transactions:  the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google, the acquisition of a large patent portfolio formerly held by Nortel Networks by “Rockstar Bidco” (a group including Microsoft, Apple, RIM and others), and the acquisition by Apple of certain Linux-related patents formerly held by Novell.  In its decision, the DOJ noted with approval the public statements by Apple and Microsoft, while expressing some concern with Google’s FRAND approach.  The European Commission approved Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility on the same day.

To understand the significance of the Apple, Microsoft and Google FRAND statements, some background is in order.  The technical standards that enable our computers, mobile phones and home entertainment gear to communicate and interoperate are developed by corps of “volunteers” who get together in person and virtually under the auspices of standards-development organizations (SDOs).  These SDOs include large, international bodies such as ETSI and IEEE, as well as smaller consortia and interest groups.  The engineers who do the bulk of the work, however, are not employees of the SDOs (which are usually thinly-staffed non-profits), but of the companies who plan to sell products that implement the standards: the Apples, Googles, Motorolas and Microsofts of the world.  Should such a company obtain a patent covering the implementation of a standard, it would be able to exert significant leverage over the market for products that implemented the standard.  In particular, if a patent holder were to obtain, or even threaten to obtain, an injunction against manufacturers of competing standards-compliant products, either the standard would become far less useful, or the market would experience significant unanticipated costs.  This phenomenon is what commentators have come to call “patent hold-up”.  Due to the possibility of hold-up, most SDOs today require that participants in the standards-development process disclose their patents that are necessary to implement the standard and/or commit to license those patents on FRAND terms.

As Contreras notes, an important part of these FRAND commitments offered by Google, Motorola, and Apple related to the availability of injunctive relief (do go see the handy chart in Contreras’ post laying out the key differences in the commitments).  Contreras usefully summarizes the three statements’ positions on injunctive relief:

In their February FRAND statements, Apple and Microsoft each commit not to seek injunctions on the basis of their standards-essential patents.  Google makes a similar commitment, but qualifies it in typically lawyerly fashion (Google’s letter is more than 3 single-spaced pages in length, while Microsoft’s simple statement occupies about a quarter of a page).  In this case, Google’s careful qualifications (injunctive relief might be possible if the potential licensee does not itself agree to refrain from seeking an injunction, if licensing negotiations extended beyond a reasonable period, and the like) worked against it.  While the DOJ applauds Apple’s and Microsoft’s statements “that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products form the market”, it views Google’s commitments as “less clear”.  The DOJ thus “continues to have concerns about the potential inappropriate use of [standards-essential patents] to disrupt competition”.

Its worth reading the DOJ’s press release on this point — specifically, that while the DOJ found that none of the three transactions itself raised competitive concerns or was substantially likely to lessen the competition, the DOJ expressed general concerns about the relationship between these firms’ market positions and ability to use the threat of injunctive relief to hold up rivals:

Apple’s and Google’s substantial share of mobile platforms makes it more likely that as the owners of additional SEPs they could hold up rivals, thus harming competition and innovation.  For example, Apple would likely benefit significantly through increased sales of its devices if it could exclude Android-based phones from the market or raise the costs of such phones through IP-licenses or patent litigation.  Google could similarly benefit by raising the costs of, or excluding, Apple devices because of the revenues it derives from Android-based devices.

The specific transactions at issue, however, are not likely to substantially lessen competition.  The evidence shows that Motorola Mobility has had a long and aggressive history of seeking to capitalize on its intellectual property and has been engaged in extended disputes with Apple, Microsoft and others.  As Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility is unlikely to materially alter that policy, the division concluded that transferring ownership of the patents would not substantially alter current market dynamics.  This conclusion is limited to the transfer of ownership rights and not the exercise of those transferred rights.

With respect to Apple/Novell, the division concluded that the acquisition of the patents from CPTN, formerly owned by Novell, is unlikely to harm competition.  While the patents Apple would acquire are important to the open source community and to Linux-based software in particular, the OIN, to which Novell belonged, requires its participating patent holders to offer a perpetual, royalty-free license for use in the “Linux-system.”  The division investigated whether the change in ownership would permit Apple to avoid OIN commitments and seek royalties from Linux users.  The division concluded it would not, a conclusion made easier by Apple’s commitment to honor Novell’s OIN licensing commitments.

In its analysis of the transactions, the division took into account the fact that during the pendency of these investigations, Apple, Google and Microsoft each made public statements explaining their respective SEP licensing practices.  Both Apple and Microsoft made clear that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products from the market in exercising their SEP rights.

What’s problematic about a competition enforcement agency extracting promises not to enforce lawfully obtained property rights during merger review, outside the formal consent process, and in transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves?  For starters, the DOJ’s expression about competitive concerns about “hold up” obfuscate an important issue.  In Rambus the D.C. Circuit clearly held that not all forms of what the DOJ describes here as patent holdup violate the antitrust laws in the first instance.  Both appellate courts discussion patent holdup as an antitrust violation have held the patent holder must deceptively induce the SSO to adopt the patented technology.  Rambus makes clear – as I’ve discussed — that a firm with lawfully acquired monopoly power who merely raises prices does not violate the antitrust laws.  The proposition that all forms of patent holdup are antitrust violations is dubious.  For an agency to extract concessions that go beyond the scope of the antitrust laws at all, much less through merger review of transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves, raises serious concerns.

Here is what the DOJ says about Google’s commitment:

If adhered to in practice, these positions could significantly reduce the possibility of a hold up or use of an injunction as a threat to inhibit or preclude innovation and competition.

Google’s commitments have been less clear.  In particular, Google has stated to the IEEE and others on Feb. 8, 2012, that its policy is to refrain from seeking injunctive relief for the infringement of SEPs against a counter-party, but apparently only for disputes involving future license revenues, and only if the counterparty:  forgoes certain defenses such as challenging the validity of the patent; pays the full disputed amount into escrow; and agrees to a reciprocal process regarding injunctions.  Google’s statement therefore does not directly provide the same assurance as the other companies’ statements concerning the exercise of its newly acquired patent rights.  Nonetheless, the division determined that the acquisition of the patents by Google did not substantially lessen competition, but how Google may exercise its patents in the future remains a significant concern.

No doubt the DOJ statement is accurate and the DOJ’s concerns about patent holdup are genuine.  But that’s not the point.

The question of the appropriate role for injunctions and damages in patent infringement litigation is a complex one.  While many scholars certainly argue that the use of injunctions facilitates patent hold up and threatens innovation.  There are serious debates to be had about whether more vigorous antitrust enforcement of the contractual relationships between patent holders and standard setting organization (SSOs) would spur greater innovation.   The empirical evidence suggesting patent holdup is a pervasive problem is however, at best, quite mixed.  Further, others argue that the availability of injunctions is not only a fundamental aspect of our system of property rights, but also from an economic perspective, that the power of the injunctions facilitates efficient transacting by the parties.  For example, some contend that the power to obtain injunctive relief for infringement within the patent thicket results in a “cold war” of sorts in which the threat is sufficient to induce cross-licensing by all parties.  Surely, this is not first best.  But that isn’t the relevant question.

There are other more fundamental problems with the notion of patent holdup as an antitrust concern.  Kobayashi & Wright also raise concerns with the theoretical case for antitrust enforcement of patent holdup on several grounds.  One is that high probability of detection of patent holdup coupled with antitrust’s treble damages makes overdeterrence highly likely.  Another is that alternative remedies such as contract and the patent doctrine of equitable estoppel render the marginal benefits of antitrust enforcement trivial or negative in this context.  Froeb, Ganglmair & Werden raise similar points.   Suffice it to say that the debate on the appropriate scope of antitrust enforcement in patent holdup is ongoing as a general matter; there is certainly no consensus with regard to economic theory or empirical evidence that stripping the availability of injunctive relief from patent holders entering into contractual relationships with SSOs will enhance competition or improve consumer welfare.  It is quite possible that such an intervention would chill competition, participation in SSOs, and the efficient contracting process potentially facilitated by the availability of injunctive relief.

The policy debate I describe above is an important one.  Many of the questions at the center of that complex debate are not settled as a matter of economic theory, empirics, or law.  This post certainly has no ambitions to resolve them here; my goal is a much more modest one.  The DOJs policymaking efforts through the merger review process raise serious issues.  I would hope that all would agree — regardless of where they stand on the patent holdup debate — that the idea that these complex debates be hammered out in merger review at the DOJ because the DOJ happens to have a number of cases involving patent portfolios is a foolish one for several reasons.

First, it is unclear the DOJ could have extracted these FRAND concessions through proper merger review.  The DOJ apparently agreed that the transactions did not raise serious competitive concerns.   The pressure imposed by the DOJ upon the parties to make the commitments to the SSOs not to pursue injunctive relief as part of a FRAND commitment outside of the normal consent process raises serious concerns.  The imposition of settlement conditions far afield from the competitive consequences of the merger itself is something we do see from antitrust enforcement agencies in other countries quite frequently, but this sort of behavior burns significant reputational capital with the rest of the world when our agencies go abroad to lecture on the importance of keeping antitrust analysis consistent, predictable, and based upon the economic fundamentals of the transaction at hand.

Second, the DOJ Antitrust Division does not alone have comparative advantage in determining the optimal use of injunctions versus damages in the patent system.

Third, appearances here are quite problematic.  Given that the DOJ did not appear to have significant competitive concerns with the transactions, one can create the following narrative of events without too much creative effort: (1) the DOJ team has theoretical priors that injunctive relief is a significant competitive problem, (2) the DOJ happens to have these mergers in front of it pending review from a couple of firms likely to be repeat players in the antitrust enforcement game, (3) the DOJ asks the firms to make these concessions despite the fact that they have little to do with the conventional antitrust analysis of the transactions, under which they would have been approved without condition.

The more I think about the use of the merger review process to extract concessions from patent holders in the form of promises not to enforce property rights which they would otherwise be legally entitled to, the more the DOJ’s actions appear inappropriate.  The stakes are high here both in terms of identifying patent and competition rules that will foster rather than hamper innovation, but also with respect to compromising the integrity of merger review through the imposition of non-merger related conditions we are more akin to seeing from the FCC, states, or less well-developed antitrust regimes.