Archives For intellectual property

[Cross posted at the CPIP Blog.]

By Mark Schultz & Adam Mossoff

A handful of increasingly noisy critics of intellectual property (IP) have emerged within free market organizations. Both the emergence and vehemence of this group has surprised most observers, since free market advocates generally support property rights. It’s true that there has long been a strain of IP skepticism among some libertarian intellectuals. However, the surprised observer would be correct to think that the latest critique is something new. In our experience, most free market advocates see the benefit and importance of protecting the property rights of all who perform productive labor – whether the results are tangible or intangible.

How do the claims of this emerging critique stand up? We have had occasion to examine the arguments of free market IP skeptics before. (For example, see here, here, here.) So far, we have largely found their claims wanting.

We have yet another occasion to examine their arguments, and once again we are underwhelmed and disappointed. We recently posted an essay at AEI’s Tech Policy Daily prompted by an odd report recently released by the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The Mercatus report attacks recent research that supposedly asserts, in the words of the authors of the Mercatus report, that “the existence of intellectual property in an industry creates the jobs in that industry.” They contend that this research “provide[s] no theoretical or empirical evidence to support” its claims of the importance of intellectual property to the U.S. economy.

Our AEI essay responds to these claims by explaining how these IP skeptics both mischaracterize the studies that they are attacking and fail to acknowledge the actual historical and economic evidence on the connections between IP, innovation, and economic prosperity. We recommend that anyone who may be confused by the assertions of any IP skeptics waving the banner of property rights and the free market read our essay at AEI, as well as our previous essays in which we have called out similarly odd statements from Mercatus about IP rights.

The Mercatus report, though, exemplifies many of the concerns we raise about these IP skeptics, and so it deserves to be considered at greater length.

For instance, something we touched on briefly in our AEI essay is the fact that the authors of this Mercatus report offer no empirical evidence of their own within their lengthy critique of several empirical studies, and at best they invoke thin theoretical support for their contentions.

This is odd if only because they are critiquing several empirical studies that develop careful, balanced and rigorous models for testing one of the biggest economic questions in innovation policy: What is the relationship between intellectual property and jobs and economic growth?

Apparently, the authors of the Mercatus report presume that the burden of proof is entirely on the proponents of IP, and that a bit of hand waving using abstract economic concepts and generalized theory is enough to defeat arguments supported by empirical data and plausible methodology.

This move raises a foundational question that frames all debates about IP rights today: On whom should the burden rest? On those who claim that IP has beneficial economic effects? Or on those who claim otherwise, such as the authors of the Mercatus report?

The burden of proof here is an important issue. Too often, recent debates about IP rights have started from an assumption that the entire burden of proof rests on those investigating or defending IP rights. Quite often, IP skeptics appear to believe that their criticism of IP rights needs little empirical or theoretical validation, beyond talismanic invocations of “monopoly” and anachronistic assertions that the Framers of the US Constitution were utilitarians.

As we detail in our AEI essay, though, the problem with arguments like those made in the Mercatus report is that they contradict history and empirics. For the evidence that supports this claim, including citations to the many studies that are ignored by the IP skeptics at Mercatus and elsewhere, check out the essay.

Despite these historical and economic facts, one may still believe that the US would enjoy even greater prosperity without IP. But IP skeptics who believe in this counterfactual world face a challenge. As a preliminary matter, they ought to acknowledge that they are the ones swimming against the tide of history and prevailing belief. More important, the burden of proof is on them – the IP skeptics – to explain why the U.S. has long prospered under an IP system they find so odious and destructive of property rights and economic progress, while countries that largely eschew IP have languished. This obligation is especially heavy for one who seeks to undermine empirical work such as the USPTO Report and other studies.

In sum, you can’t beat something with nothing. For IP skeptics to contest this evidence, they should offer more than polemical and theoretical broadsides. They ought to stop making faux originalist arguments that misstate basic legal facts about property and IP, and instead offer their own empirical evidence. The Mercatus report, however, is content to confine its empirics to critiques of others’ methodology – including claims their targets did not make.

For example, in addition to the several strawman attacks identified in our AEI essay, the Mercatus report constructs another strawman in its discussion of studies of copyright piracy done by Stephen Siwek for the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI). Mercatus inaccurately and unfairly implies that Siwek’s studies on the impact of piracy in film and music assumed that every copy pirated was a sale lost – this is known as “the substitution rate problem.” In fact, Siwek’s methodology tackled that exact problem.

IPI and Siwek never seem to get credit for this, but Siwek was careful to avoid the one-to-one substitution rate estimate that Mercatus and others foist on him and then critique as empirically unsound. If one actually reads his report, it is clear that Siwek assumes that bootleg physical copies resulted in a 65.7% substitution rate, while illegal downloads resulted in a 20% substitution rate. Siwek’s methodology anticipates and renders moot the critique that Mercatus makes anyway.

After mischaracterizing these studies and their claims, the Mercatus report goes further in attacking them as supporting advocacy on behalf of IP rights. Yes, the empirical results have been used by think tanks, trade associations and others to support advocacy on behalf of IP rights. But does that advocacy make the questions asked and resulting research invalid? IP skeptics would have trumpeted results showing that IP-intensive industries had a minimal economic impact, just as Mercatus policy analysts have done with alleged empirical claims about IP in other contexts. In fact, IP skeptics at free-market institutions repeatedly invoke studies in policy advocacy that allegedly show harm from patent litigation, despite these studies suffering from far worse problems than anything alleged in their critiques of the USPTO and other studies.

Finally, we noted in our AEI essay how it was odd to hear a well-known libertarian think tank like Mercatus advocate for more government-funded programs, such as direct grants or prizes, as viable alternatives to individual property rights secured to inventors and creators. There is even more economic work being done beyond the empirical studies we cited in our AEI essay on the critical role that property rights in innovation serve in a flourishing free market, as well as work on the economic benefits of IP rights over other governmental programs like prizes.

Today, we are in the midst of a full-blown moral panic about the alleged evils of IP. It’s alarming that libertarians – the very people who should be defending all property rights – have jumped on this populist bandwagon. Imagine if free market advocates at the turn of the Twentieth Century had asserted that there was no evidence that property rights had contributed to the Industrial Revolution. Imagine them joining in common cause with the populist Progressives to suppress the enforcement of private rights and the enjoyment of economic liberty. It’s a bizarre image, but we are seeing its modern-day equivalent, as these libertarians join the chorus of voices arguing against property and private ordering in markets for innovation and creativity.

It’s also disconcerting that Mercatus appears to abandon its exceptionally high standards for scholarly work-product when it comes to IP rights. Its economic analyses and policy briefs on such subjects as telecommunications regulation, financial and healthcare markets, and the regulatory state have rightly made Mercatus a respected free-market institution. It’s unfortunate that it has lent this justly earned prestige and legitimacy to stale and derivative arguments against property and private ordering in the innovation and creative industries. It’s time to embrace the sound evidence and back off the rhetoric.

An important new paper was recently posted to SSRN by Commissioner Joshua Wright and Joanna Tsai.  It addresses a very hot topic in the innovation industries: the role of patented innovation in standard setting organizations (SSO), what are known as standard essential patents (SEP), and whether the nature of the contractual commitment that adheres to a SEP — specifically, a licensing commitment known by another acronym, FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) — represents a breakdown in private ordering in the efficient commercialization of new technology.  This is an important contribution to the growing literature on patented innovation and SSOs, if only due to the heightened interest in these issues by the FTC and the Antitrust Division at the DOJ.

http://ssrn.com/abstract=2467939.

“Standard Setting, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Role of Antitrust in Regulating Incomplete Contracts”

JOANNA TSAI, Government of the United States of America – Federal Trade Commission
Email:
JOSHUA D. WRIGHT, Federal Trade Commission, George Mason University School of Law
Email:

A large and growing number of regulators and academics, while recognizing the benefits of standardization, view skeptically the role standard setting organizations (SSOs) play in facilitating standardization and commercialization of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Competition agencies and commentators suggest specific changes to current SSO IPR policies to reduce incompleteness and favor an expanded role for antitrust law in deterring patent holdup. These criticisms and policy proposals are based upon the premise that the incompleteness of SSO contracts is inefficient and the result of market failure rather than an efficient outcome reflecting the costs and benefits of adding greater specificity to SSO contracts and emerging from a competitive contracting environment. We explore conceptually and empirically that presumption. We also document and analyze changes to eleven SSO IPR policies over time. We find that SSOs and their IPR policies appear to be responsive to changes in perceived patent holdup risks and other factors. We find the SSOs’ responses to these changes are varied across SSOs, and that contractual incompleteness and ambiguity for certain terms persist both across SSOs and over time, despite many revisions and improvements to IPR policies. We interpret this evidence as consistent with a competitive contracting process. We conclude by exploring the implications of these findings for identifying the appropriate role of antitrust law in governing ex post opportunism in the SSO setting.

[First posted to the CPIP Blog on June 17, 2014]

Last Thursday, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, issued an announcement on the company’s blog with a catchy title: “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.” Commentary in social media and on blogs, as well as in traditional newspapers, jumped to the conclusion that Tesla is abandoning its patents and making them “freely” available to the public for whomever wants to use them. As with all things involving patented innovation these days, the reality of Tesla’s new patent policy does not match the PR spin or the buzz on the Internet.

The reality is that Tesla is not disclaiming its patent rights, despite Musk’s title to his announcement or his invocation in his announcement of the tread-worn cliché today that patents impede innovation. In fact, Tesla’s new policy is an example of Musk exercising patent rights, not abandoning them.

If you’re not puzzled by Tesla’s announcement, you should be. This is because patents are a type of property right that secures the exclusive rights to make, use, or sell an invention for a limited period of time. These rights do not come cheap — inventions cost time, effort, and money to create and companies like Tesla then exploit these property rights in spending even more time, effort and money in converting inventions into viable commercial products and services sold in the marketplace. Thus, if Tesla’s intention is to make its ideas available for public use, why, one may wonder, did it bother to expend the tremendous resources in acquiring the patents in the first place?

The key to understanding this important question lies in a single phrase in Musk’s announcement that almost everyone has failed to notice: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” (emphasis added)

What does “in good faith” mean in this context? Fortunately, one intrepid reporter at the L.A. Times asked this question, and the answer from Musk makes clear that this new policy is not an abandonment of patent rights in favor of some fuzzy notion of the public domain, but rather it’s an exercise of his company’s patent rights: “Tesla will allow other manufacturers to use its patents in “good faith” – essentially barring those users from filing patent-infringement lawsuits against [Tesla] or trying to produce knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.” In the legalese known to patent lawyers and inventors the world over, this is not an abandonment of Tesla’s patents, this is what is known as a cross license.

In plain English, here’s the deal that Tesla is offering to manufacturers and users of its electrical car technology: in exchange for using Tesla’s patents, the users of Tesla’s patents cannot file patent infringement lawsuits against Tesla if Tesla uses their other patents. In other words, this is a classic deal made between businesses all of the time — you can use my property and I can use your property, and we cannot sue each other. It’s a similar deal to that made between two neighbors who agree to permit each other to cross each other’s backyard. In the context of patented innovation, this agreement is more complicated, but it is in principle the same thing: if automobile manufacturer X decides to use Tesla’s patents, and Tesla begins infringing X’s patents on other technology, then X has agreed through its prior use of Tesla’s patents that it cannot sue Tesla. Thus, each party has licensed the other to make, use and sell their respective patented technologies; in patent law parlance, it’s a “cross license.”

The only thing unique about this cross licensing offer is that Tesla publicly announced it as an open offer for anyone willing to accept it. This is not a patent “free for all,” and it certainly is not tantamount to Tesla “taking down the patent wall.” These are catchy sound bites, but they in fact obfuscate the clear business-minded nature of this commercial decision.

For anyone perhaps still doubting what is happening here, the same L.A Times story further confirms that Tesla is not abandoning the patent system. As stated to the reporter: “Tesla will continue to seek patents for its new technology to prevent others from poaching its advancements.” So much for the much ballyhooed pronouncements last week of how Tesla’s new patent (licensing) policy “reminds us of the urgent need for patent reform”! Musk clearly believes that the patent system is working just great for the new technological innovation his engineers are creating at Tesla right now.

For those working in the innovation industries, Tesla’s decision to cross license its old patents makes sense. Tesla Motors has already extracted much of the value from these old patents: Musk was able to secure venture capital funding for his startup company and he was able to secure for Tesla a dominant position in the electrical car market through his exclusive use of this patented innovation. (Venture capitalists consistently rely on patents in making investment decisions, and for anyone who doubts this need to watch only a few episodes of Shark Tank.) Now that everyone associates radical, cutting-edge innovation with Tesla, Musk can shift in his strategic use of his company’s assets, including his intellectual property rights, such as relying more heavily on the goodwill associated with the Tesla trademark. This is clear, for instance, from the statement to the LA Times that companies or individuals agreeing to the “good faith” terms of Tesla’s license agree not to make “knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.”

There are other equally important commercial reasons for Tesla adopting its new cross-licensing policy, but the point has been made. Tesla’s new cross-licensing policy for its old patents is not Musk embracing “the open source philosophy” (as he asserts in his announcement). This may make good PR given the overheated rhetoric today about the so-called “broken patent system,” but it’s time people recognize the difference between PR and a reasonable business decision that reflects a company that has used (old) patents to acquire a dominant market position and is now changing its business model given these successful developments.

At a minimum, people should recognize that Tesla is not declaring that it will not bring patent infringement lawsuits, but only that it will not sue people with whom it has licensed its patented innovation. This is not, contrary to one law professor’s statement, a company “refrain[ing] from exercising their patent rights to the fullest extent of the law.” In licensing its patented technology, Tesla is in fact exercising its patent rights to the fullest extent of the law, and that is exactly what the patent system promotes in the myriad business models and innovative

In recent years, antitrust enforcers in Europe and the United States have made public pronouncements and pursued enforcement initiatives that undermine the ability of patentees to earn maximum profits through the unilateral exercise of rights within the scope of their patents, as discussed in separate recent articles by me and by Professor Nicolas Petit of the University of Liege. (Similar sorts of concerns have been raised by Federal Trade Commissioner Joshua Wright.) This represents a change in emphasis away from restraints on competition among purveyors of rival patented technologies and toward the alleged “exploitation” of a patentee’s particular patented technology. It is manifested, for example, in enforcers’ rising enthusiasm for limiting patent royalties (based on hypothetical ex ante comparisons to “next best” technologies, or the existence of standards on which patents “read”), for imposing compulsory licensing remedies, and for constraining the terms of private patent litigation settlements involving a single patented technology. (Not surprisingly, given its broader legal mandate to attack abuses of dominant positions, the European Commission has been more aggressive than United States antitrust agencies.) This development has troubling implications for long-term economic welfare and innovation, and merits far greater attention than it has received thus far.

What explains this phenomenon? Public enforcers are motivated by research that purports to demonstrate fundamental flaws in the workings of the patent system (including patent litigation) and the poor quality of many patents, as described, for example, in 2003 and 2011 U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Reports. Central to this scholarship is the notion that patents are “highly uncertain” and merely “probabilistic” (read “second class”) property rights that should be deemed to convey only a right to try to exclude. This type of thinking justifies a greater role for prosecutors to “look inside” the patent “black box” and use antitrust to “correct” perceived patent “abuses,” including supposed litigation excesses.

This perspective is problematic, to say the least. Government patent agencies, not antitrust enforcers, are best positioned to (and have taken steps to) rein in litigation excesses and improve patent quality, and the Supreme Court continues to issue rulings clarifying patent coverage. More fundamentally, as Professor Petit and I explain, this new patent-specific interventionist trend ignores a robust and growing law and economics literature that highlights the benefits of the patent system in enabling technology commercialization, signaling value to capital markets and innovators, and reducing information and transaction costs. It also fails to confront empirical studies that by and large suggest stronger patent regimes are associated with faster economic growth and innovation. Furthermore, decision theory and error cost considerations indicate that antitrust agencies are ill-equipped to second guess unilateral exercises of property rights that fall within the scope of a patent. Finally, other antitrust jurisdictions, such as China, are all too likely to cite new United States and European constraints on unilateral patent right assertions as justifications for even more intrusive limitations on patent rights.

What, then, should the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies do? Ideally, they should announce that they are redirecting their emphasis to prosecuting inefficient competitive restraints involving rival patented technologies, the central thrust of the 1995 FTC-U.S. Justice Department Patent-Antitrust Licensing Guidelines. In so doing, they should state publicly that an individual patentee should be entitled to the full legitimate returns flowing from the legal scope of its patent, free from antitrust threat. (The creation of patent-specific market power through deception or fraud is not a legitimate return on patent rights, of course, and should be subject to antitrust prosecution when found.) One would hope that eventually the European Commission (and, dare we suggest, other antitrust authorities as well) would be inspired to adopt a similar program. Additional empirical research documenting the economy-wide benefits of encouraging robust unilateral patent assertions could prove helpful in this regard.

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 American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia:  China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy.  These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States.  This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics.  The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.

With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices.  Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress.  Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress.  (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)

While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.

In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm.  (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.)  On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions.  The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers.  Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.

The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface.  She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines.  In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements.  Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars.  (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.)  I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents.  In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities.  I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.

If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents.  As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth.  As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.

Interested observers on all sides of the contentious debate over Aereo have focused a great deal on the implications for cloud computing if the Supreme Court rules against Aereo. The Court hears oral argument next week, and the cloud computing issue is sure to make an appearance.

Several parties that filed amicus briefs in the case weighed in on the issue. The Center for Democracy & Technology, for example, filed abrief arguing that a ruling against Aereo would hinder the development of cloud computing. Thirty-six Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Professors also filed a brief arguing this point. On the other hand, the United States—represented by the Solicitor General—devoted a section of its amicus brief in support of copyright owners’ argument that the Court could rule against Aereo without undermining cloud computing.

Our organizations, the International Center for Law and Economics and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the Petitioners (as did many other policy groups, academics, and trade associations). In our brief we applied the consumer welfare framework to the question whether allowing Aereo’s business practice would increase the societal benefits that copyright law seeks to advance. We argued that holding Aereo liable for copyright infringement was well within the letter and spirit of the Copyright Act of 1976. In particular, we argued that Aereo’s model is less a disruptive innovation than a technical work-around taking advantage of the Second Circuit’s overbroad reading of the law in the Cablevision case.

Although our brief didn’t directly address cloud computing writ large, we did articulate a crucial distinction between Aereo and other cloud computing providers. Under our reasoning, the Court could rule against Aereo—as it should—without destroying cloud computing—as it should not.

Background

By way of background, at the center of the legal debate is what it means to “perform [a] copyrighted work publicly.” Aereo argues that because only one individual subscriber is “capable of receiving” each transmission its service delivers, its performances are private, not public. The Copyright Act gives copyright owners the exclusive right to publicly perform their works, but not the right to perform them privately. Therefore, Aereo contends, its service doesn’t infringe upon copyright owners’ exclusive rights.

We disagree. As our brief explains, Aereo’s argument ignores Congress’ decision in the Copyright Act of 1976 to expressly define the transmission of a television broadcast “by means of any device or process” to the public as a public performance, “whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance … receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.” Aereo has built an elaborate system for distributing live high-def broadcast television content to subscribers for a monthly fee—without obtaining permission from, or paying royalties to, the copyright owners in the audiovisual works aired by broadcasters.

Although the Copyright Act’s text is less than artful, Congress plainly wrote it so as to encompass businesses that sell consumers access to live television broadcasts, whether using traditional means—such as coaxial cable lines—or some high-tech system that lawmakers couldn’t foresee in 1976.

What does this case mean for cloud computing? To answer this question, it’s worth dividing the discussion into two parts: one addressing cloud providers that don’t sell their users licenses to copyrighted works, and the other addressing cloud providers that do. Dropbox and Mozy fit in the first category; Amazon and iTunes fit in the second.

A Ruling Against Aereo Won’t Destroy Cloud Computing Services like Dropbox

According to the 36 Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Professors, a loss for Aereo would be bad news for cloud storage providers such as Dropbox:

If any service making multiple transmissions of the same underlying copyrighted audiovisual work is publicly performing that work, then the distinction between video-on-demand services and online storage services would vanish, and all such services would henceforth face infringement liability. Thus, if two Dropbox users independently streamed “We, the Juries,” then under Petitioners’ theory, those two transmissions would be aggregated together, making them collectively “to the public.” Under Petitioners’ theory of this case—direct infringement by public performance—that would be game, set, and match against Dropbox.

This sounds like bad news for the cloud. Fortunately, however, Dropbox has little to fear from an Aereo defeat, even if the professors are right to worry about an overbroad public performance right (more on this below). The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) grants online service providers—including cloud hosting services such as Dropbox—a safe harbor from copyright infringement liability for unwittingly storing infringing files uploaded by their users. In exchange for this immunity, service providers must comply with the DMCA’snotice and takedown system and adopt a policy to terminate repeat-infringing users, among other duties.

Although 17 U.S.C. § 512(c) refers only to infringement “by reason of … storage” directed by a user, courts have consistently interpreted this language to “encompass[] the access-facilitating processes that automatically occur when a user uploads” a file to a cloud hosting service. Whether YouTube streams an infringing video once or 1,000,000 times, therefore, it retains its DMCA immunity so long as it complies with the safe harbor’s requirements. So even if Aereo loses, and every DropBox user who streams “We, the Juries” is receiving a public performance, DropBox will still be safe from copyright infringement liability in the same way as YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion, and countless other services are safe today.

An Aereo Defeat Won’t Kill Cloud Computing Services like Amazon and Google

As for cloud computing providers that provide copyrighted content, the legal analysis is admittedly trickier. These providers, such as Google and Amazon, contract with copyright holders to sell their users licenses to copyrighted works. Some providers offer a subscription to streaming content, for which the provider has typically secured public performance licenses from the copyright owners. Cloud providers also sell digital copies of copyrighted works—that is, non-transferable lifetime licenses—for which the provider has generally obtained reproduction and distribution licenses, but not public performance rights.

But, as copyright law guru Devlin Hartline argues, determining if a performance is public or private turns on whether the cloud provider’s “volitional conduct [is] sufficient such that it directly causes the transmission.” When a user streams her own licensed content from a cloud service, it remains a private performance because the cloud service took no willful steps to facilitate the playback of copyrighted material. (The same is true for Dropbox-like services, as well.) Aereo, conversely, “crosse[s] the line from being a passive conduit to being an active participant because it supplies the very content that is available using its service.”

Neither Google’s nor Amazon’s business models much resemble Aereo’s, which entails transmitting content for which the company has secured no copyright licenses—either for itself or for its users. And to the extent that these services do supply the content being transmitted (as Spotify or Google Play All Access do, for example), they secure the appropriate public performance right to do so. Indeed, critics who have focused on cloud computing fail to appreciate how the Copyright Act distinguishes between infringing technologies such as Aereo and lawful uses of the cloud to store, share, and transmit copyrighted works.

For instance, as CDT notes:

[S]everal companies (including Google and Amazon) have launched personal music locker services, allowing individuals to upload their personal music collections “to the cloud” and enabling them to transmit that music back to their own computers, phones, and tablets when, where, and how they find most convenient.

And other critics of broadcasters’ legal position have made similar arguments, claiming that the Court cannot reach a holding that simultaneously bars Aereo while allowing cloud storage:

[I]f Aereo is publicly performing when you store a unique copy of the nightly news online and watch it later, then why aren’t cloud services publicly performing if they host your (lawful) unique mp3 of the latest hit single and stream it to you later?… The problem with this rationale is that it applies with equal force to cloud storage like Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud, and Google Drive. If multiple people store their own, unique, lawfully acquired copy of the latest hit single in the cloud, and then play it to themselves over the Internet, that too sounds like the broadcasters’ version of a public performance. The anti-Aereo rationale doesn’t distinguish between Aereo and the cloud.

The Ability to Contract is Key

These arguments miss the important concept of privity. A copyright holder who does not wish to license the exclusive rights in her content cannot be forced to do so (unless the content is subject to a compulsory license). If a copyright holder prefers its users not upload their licensed videos to the cloud and later stream them for personal use, the owner can include such a prohibition in its licenses. This may affect users’ willingness to pay for such encumbered content—but this is private ordering in action, with copyright holders and licensees bargaining over control over copyrighted works, a core purpose of the Copyright Act.

When a copyright holder wishes to license content to a cloud provider or user, the parties can bargain over whether users may stream their content from the cloud. These deals can evolve over time in response to new technology and changing consumer demand. This happens all the time—as in therecent deal between Dish and Disney over the Hopper DVR, wherein Dish agreed that Hopper would automatically excise the commercials accompanying ABC content only after three days elapse after each show airs.

But Aereo forecloses the possibility of such negotiation, making all over-the-air content available online to subscribers absent any agreement with the underlying copyright owners of such programs. Aereo is thus distinct from other cloud services that supply content to their users, as the latter have permission to license their content.

Of course, broadcasters make their programming freely available over the airwaves, without any express agreement with viewers. But this doesn’t mean broadcasters lose their legal right to restrict how third parties distribute and monetize their content. While consumers can record and watch such broadcasts at their leisure, they can’t record programs and then sell the rights to the content, for example, simply replicating the broadcast. The fact that copyright holders have entered into licenses to “cloud-ify” content with dedicated over-the-top apps and Hulu clearly suggests that the over-the-air “license” is limited. And because Aereo refuses to deal with the broadcasters, there’s no possibility of a negotiated agreement between Aereo and the content owners, either. The unique combination of broadcast content and an unlicensed distributor differentiates the situation in Aereo from typical cloud computing.

If broadcasters can’t rely on copyright law to protect them from companies like Aereo that simply repackage over-the-air content, they may well shift all of their content to cable subscriptions instead of giving a free option to consumers. That’s bad news for folks who access free television—regardless of the efficiency of traditional broadcasting, or lack thereof.

The Cablevision Decision Doesn’t Require a Holding for Aereo

Commentators argue that overruling the Second Circuit in Aereo necessarily entails overruling the Second Circuit’s Cablevision holding—and with it that ruling’s fair use protections for DVRs and other cloud computing functionality. We disagree, however. Rather, regardless of whether Cablevision was correctly decided, its application to Aereo is improper.

In Cablevision, the individual cable subscribers to whom Cablevision transmitted copies of plaintiff Cartoon Network’s television programming were already paying for lawful access to it. Cartoon Network voluntarily agreed to license its copyrighted works to Cablevision and, in turn, to each Cablevision subscriber whose cable package included the Cartoon Network channel.

The dispute in Cablevision thus involved a copyright holder and a licensee with a preexisting contractual relationship; the parties simply disagreed on the terms by which Cablevision was permitted to transmit Cartoon Network’s content. But even after the decision, Cartoon Network remained (and remains) free to terminate or renegotiate its licensing agreement with Cablevision.

Again, this dynamic of voluntary exchange mitigates Cablevision’s impact on the market for television programming, as copyright holders and cable companies settle on a new equilibrium. But unlike the cable company in Cablevision, Aereo has neither sought nor received permission from any holders of copyrights in broadcast television programming before retransmitting their works to paying subscribers.

Even if it is correct that Aereo itself isn’t engaging in public performance of copyrighted work, it remains the case that its subscribers haven’t obtained the right to use Aereo’s services, either. But one party or the other must obtain this right or else establish that it’s a fair use.

Fair Use Won’t Save Aereo

The only way legitimately to rule in Aereo’s favor would be to decide that Aereo’s retransmission of broadcast content is a fair use. But as Cablevision’s own amicus brief in Aereo (supporting Aereo) argues, fair use rights don’t cover Aereo’s non-transformative retransmission of broadcast content. Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content:

Aereo is functionally identical to a cable system. It captures over-the-air broadcast signals and retransmits them for subscribers to watch. Aereo thus is not meaningfully different from services that have long been required to pay royalties. That fact sharply distinguishes Aereo from cloud technologies like remote-storage services and remote DVRs.

* * *

Aereo is not in the business of transmitting recorded content from individual hard-drive copies to subscribers. Rather, it is in the business of retransmitting broadcast television to subscribers.

* * *

Aereo…is not relying on its separate hard-drive copies merely to justify the lawfulness of its pause, rewind, and record functions. It is relying on those copies to justify the entire television retransmission service. It is doing so even in the many cases where subscribers are not even using the pause, rewind, or record functions but are merely watching television live.

It may be that the DVR-like functions that Aereo provides are protected, but that doesn’t mean that it can retransmit copyrighted content without a license. If, like cable companies, it obtained such a license, it might be able to justify its other functionality (and negotiate license terms with broadcasters to reflect the value to each of such functionality). But that is a fundamentally different case. Similarly, if users were able to purchase licenses to broadcast content, Aereo’s additional functionality might also be protected (with the license terms between users and broadcasters reflecting the value to each). But, again, that is a fundamentally different case. Cloud computing services don’t create these problems, and thus need not be implicated by a proper reading of the Copyright Act and a ruling against Aereo.

Conclusion

One of the main purposes of copyright law is to secure for content creators the right to market their work. To allow services like Aereo undermines that ability and the incentives to create content in the first place. But, as we have shown, there is no reason to think a ruling against Aereo will destroy cloud computing.

This was previously posted to the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property Blog on October 4, and given that Congress is rushing headlong into enacting legislation to respond to an alleged crisis over “patent trolls,” it bears reposting if only to show that Congress is ignoring its own experts in the Government Accountability Office who officially reported this past August that there’s no basis for this legislative stampede.

As previously reported, there are serious concerns with the studies asserting that a “patent litigation explosion” has been caused by patent licensing companies (so-called non-practicing entities (“NPEs”) or “patent trolls”). These seemingly alarming studies (see here and here) have drawn scholarly criticism for their use of proprietary, secret data collected from companies like RPX and Patent Freedom – companies whose business models are predicated on defending against patent licensing companies. In addition to raising serious questions about self-selection and other biases in the data underlying these studies, the RPX and Patent Freedom data sets to this day remain secret and are unknown and unverifiable.  Thus, it is impossible to apply the standard scientific and academic norm that all studies make available data for confirmation of the results via independently produced studies.  We have long suggested that it was time to step back from such self-selecting “statistics” based on secret data and nonobjective rhetoric in the patent policy debates.

At long last, an important and positive step has been taken in this regard. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on patent litigation, entitled “Intellectual Property: Assessing Factors that Affect Patent Infringement Litigation Could Help Improve Patent Quality,” (“the GAO Report”), which was mandated by § 34 of the America Invents Act (AIA). The GAO Report offers an important step in the right direction in beginning a more constructive, fact-based discussion about litigation over patented innovation.

The GAO is an independent, non-partisan agency under Congress.  As stated in its report, it was tasked by the AIA to undertake this study in response to “concerns that patent infringement litigation by NPEs is increasing and that this litigation, in some cases, has imposed high costs on firms that are actually developing and manufacturing products, especially in the software and technology sectors.”  Far from affirming such concerns, the GAO Report concludes that no such NPE litigation problem exists.

In its study of patent litigation in the United States, the GAO primarily utilized data obtained from Lex Machina, a firm specialized in collecting and analyzing IP litigation data.  To describe what is known about the volume and characteristics of recent patent litigation activity, the GAO utilized data provided by Lex Machina for all patent infringement lawsuits between 2000 and 2011.  Additionally, Lex Machina also selected a sample of 500 lawsuits – 100 per year from 2007 to 2011 – to allow estimated percentages with a margin of error of no more than plus or minus 5% points over all these years and no more than plus or minus 10% points for any particular year.  From this data set, the GAO extrapolated its conclusion that current concerns expressed about patent licensing companies were misplaced. 

Interestingly, the methodology employed by the GAO stands in stark contrast to the prior studies based on secret, proprietary data from RPX and Patent Freedom. The GAO Report explicitly recognized that these prior studies were fundamentally flawed given that they relied on “nonrandom, nongeneralizable” data sets from private companies (GAO Report, p. 26).  In other words, even setting aside the previously reported concerns of self-selection bias and nonobjective rhetoric, it is inappropriate to draw statistical inferences from such sample data sets to the state of patent litigation in the United States as a whole.  In contrast, the sample of 500 lawsuits selected by Lex Machina for the GAO study is truly random and generalizable (and its data is publicly available and testable by independent scholars).

Indeed, the most interesting results in the GAO Report concern its conclusions from the publicly accessible Lex Machina data about the volume and characteristics of patent litigation today.  The GAO Report finds that between 1991 and 2011, applications for all types of patents increased, with the total number of applications doubling across the same period (GAO Report, p.12, Fig. 1).  Yet, the GAO Report finds that over the same period of time, the rate of patent infringement lawsuits did not similarly increase.  Instead, the GAO reports that “[f]rom 2000 to 2011, about 29,000 patent infringement lawsuits were filed in the U.S. district courts” and that the number of these lawsuits filed per year fluctuated only slightly until 2011 (GAO Report, p. 14).  The GAO Report also finds that in 2011 about 900 more lawsuits were filed than the average number of lawsuits in each of the four previous years, which an increase of about 31%, but it attributes this to the AIA’s prohibition on joinder of multiple defendants in a single patent infringement lawsuit that went into effect in 2011 (GAO Report, p. 14).  We also discussed the causal effect of the AIA joinder rules on the recent increase in patent litigation here and here.

The GAO Report next explores the correlation between the volume of patent infringement lawsuits filed and the litigants who brought those suits.  Utilizing the data obtained from Lex Machina, the GAO observed that from 2007 to 2011 manufacturing companies and related entities brought approximately 68% of all patent infringement lawsuits, while patent aggregating and licensing companies brought only 19% of such lawsuits. (The remaining 13% of lawsuits were brought by individual inventors, universities, and a number of entities the GAO was unable to verify.) The GAO Report acknowledged that lawsuits brought by patent licensing companies increased in 2011 (24%), but it found that this increase is not statistically significant. (GAO Report, pp. 17-18)

The GAO also found that the lawsuits filed by manufacturers and patent licensing companies settled or likely settled at similar rates (GAO Report, p. 25).  Again, this contradicts widely asserted claims today that patent licensing companies bring patent infringement lawsuits solely for purposes of only nuisance settlements (implying that manufacturers litigate patents to trial at a higher rate than patent licensing companies).

In sum, the GAO Report reveals that the conventional wisdom today about a so-called “patent troll litigation explosion” is unsupported by the facts (see also here and here).  Manufacturers – i.e., producers of products based upon patented innovation – bring the vast majority of patent infringement lawsuits, and that these lawsuits have similar characteristics as those brought by patent licensing companies.

The GAO Report shines an important spotlight on a fundamental flaw in the current policy debates about patent licensing companies (the so-called “NPEs” or “patent trolls”).  Commentators, scholars and congresspersons pushing for legislative revisions to patent litigation to address a so-called “patent troll problem” have relied on overheated rhetoric and purported “studies” that simply do not hold up to empirical scrutiny.  While mere repetition of unsupported and untenable claims makes such claims conventional wisdom (and thus “truth” in the minds of policymakers and the public), it is still no substitute for a sensible policy discussion based on empirically sound data. 

This is particularly important given that the outcry against patent licensing companies continues to sweep the popular media and is spurring Congress and the President to propose substantial legislative and regulatory revisions to the patent system.  With the future of innovation at stake, it is not crazy to ask that before we make radical, systemic changes to the patent system that we have validly established empirical evidence that such revisions are in fact necessary or at least would do more good than harm. The GAO Report reminds us all that we have not yet reached this minimum requirement for sound, sensible policymaking.