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Today the FTC filed its complaint in federal district court in Washington against Amazon, alleging that the company’s in-app purchasing system permits children to make in-app purchases without parental “informed consent” constituting an “unfair practice” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

As I noted in my previous post on the case, in bringing this case the Commission is doubling down on the rule it introduced in Apple that effectively converts the balancing of harms and benefits required under Section 5 of the FTC Act to a per se rule that deems certain practices to be unfair regardless of countervailing benefits. Similarly, it is attempting to extend the informed consent standard it created in Apple that essentially maintains that only specific, identified practices (essentially, distinct notification at the time of purchase or opening of purchase window, requiring entry of a password to proceed) are permissible under the Act.

Such a standard is inconsistent with the statute, however. The FTC’s approach forecloses the ability of companies like Amazon to engage in meaningful design decisions and disregards their judgment about which user interface designs will, on balance, benefit consumers. The FTC Act does not empower the Commission to disregard the consumer benefits of practices that simply fail to mimic the FTC’s preconceived design preferences. While that sort of approach might be defensible in the face of manifestly harmful practices like cramming, it is wholly inappropriate in the context of app stores like Amazon’s that spend considerable resources to design every aspect of their interaction with consumers—and that seek to attract, not to defraud, consumers.

Today’s complaint occasions a few more observations:

  1. Amazon has a very strong case. Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Commission will have to prevail on all three elements required to prove unfairness under Section 5: that there is substantial injury, that consumers can’t reasonably avoid the injury and that any countervailing benefits don’t outweigh the injury. But, consistent with its complaint and consent order in Apple, the Amazon complaint focuses almost entirely on only the first of these. While that may have been enough to induce Apple to settle out of court, the FTC will actually have to make out a case on reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits at trial. It’s not at all clear that the agency will be able to do so on the facts alleged here.
  2. On reasonable avoidance, over and above Amazon’s general procedures that limit unwanted in-app purchases, the FTC will have a tough time showing that Amazon’s Kindle Free Time doesn’t provide parents with more than enough ability to avoid injury. In fact, the complaint doesn’t mention Free Time at all.
  3. Among other things, the complaint asserts that Amazon knew about issues with in-app purchasing by December of 2011 and claims that “[n]ot until June 2014 did Amazon change its in-app charge framework to obtain account holders’ informed consent for in-app charges on its newer mobile devices.” But Kindle Free Time was introduced in September of 2012. While four FTC Commissioners may believe that Free Time isn’t a sufficient response to the alleged problem, it is clearly a readily available, free and effective (read: reasonable) mechanism for parents to avoid the alleged harms. It may not be what the design mavens at the FTC would have chosen to do, but it seems certain that avoiding unauthorized in-app purchases by children was part of what motivated Amazon’s decision to create and offer Free Time.
  4. On countervailing benefits, as Commissioner Wright discussed in detail in his dissent from the Apple consent order, the Commission seems to think that it can simply assert that there are no countervailing benefits to Amazon’s design choices around in-app purchases. Here the complaint doesn’t mention 1-Click at all, which is core to Amazon’s user interface design and essential to evaluating the balance of harms and benefits required by the statute.
  5. Even if it can show that Amazon’s in-app purchase practices caused harm, the Commission will still have to demonstrate that Amazon’s conscious efforts to minimize the steps required to make purchases doesn’t benefit consumers on balance. In Apple, the FTC majority essentially (and improperly) valued these sorts of user-interface benefits at zero. It implicitly does so again here, but a court will require more than such an assertion.
  6. Given these lapses, there is even a chance that the complaint will be thrown out on a motion to dismiss. It’s a high bar, but if the court agrees that there are insufficient facts in the complaint to make out a plausible case on all three elements, Amazon could well prevail on a motion to dismiss. The FTC’s approach in the Apple consent order effectively maintains that the agency can disregard reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits in contravention of the statute. By following the same approach here in actual litigation, the FTC may well meet resistance from the courts, which have not yet so cavalierly dispensed with the statute’s requirements.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Amazon is getting — and fighting — the “Apple treatment” from the FTC for its design of its in-app purchases:

Amazon.com Inc. is bucking a request from the Federal Trade Commission that it tighten its policies for purchases made by children while using mobile applications.

In a letter to the FTC Tuesday, Amazon said it was prepared to “defend our approach in court,” rather than agree to fines and additional record keeping and disclosure requirements over the next 20 years, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

According to the documents, Amazon is facing a potential lawsuit by the FTC, which wants the Seattle retailer to accept terms similar to those that Apple Inc. agreed to earlier this year regarding so-called in-app purchases.

From what I can tell, the Commission has voted to issue a complaint, and Amazon has informed the Commission that it will not accept its proposed settlement.

I am thrilled that Amazon seems to have decided to fight the latest effort by a majority of the FTC to bring every large tech company under 20-year consent decree. I should say: I’m disappointed in the FTC, sorry for Amazon, but thrilled for consumers and the free marketplace that Amazon is choosing to fight rather than acquiesce.

As I wrote earlier this year about the FTC’s case against Apple in testimony before the House Commerce Committee:

What’s particularly notable about the Apple case – and presumably will be in future technology enforcement actions predicated on unfairness – is the unique relevance of the attributes of the conduct at issue to its product. Unlike past, allegedly similar, cases, Apple’s conduct was not aimed at deceiving consumers, nor was it incidental to its product offering. But by challenging the practice, particularly without the balancing of harms required by Section 5, the FTC majority failed to act with restraint and substituted its own judgment, not about some manifestly despicable conduct, but about the very design of Apple’s products. This is the sort of area where regulatory humility is more — not less — important.

In failing to observe common sense limits in Apple, the FTC set a dangerous precedent that, given the agency’s enormous regulatory scope and the nature of technologically advanced products, could cause significant harm to consumers.

Here that failure is even more egregious. Amazon has built its entire business around the “1-click” concept — which consumers love — and implemented a host of notification and security processes hewing as much as possible to that design choice, but nevertheless taking account of the sorts of issues raised by in-app purchases. Moreover — and perhaps most significantly — it has implemented an innovative and comprehensive parental control regime (including the ability to turn off all in-app purchases) — Kindle Free Time — that arguably goes well beyond anything the FTC required in its Apple consent order. I use Kindle Free Time with my kids and have repeatedly claimed to anyone who will listen that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Other consumers must feel similarly. Finally, regardless of all of that, Amazon has nevertheless voluntarily implemented additional notification procedures intended to comply with the Apple settlement, even though it didn’t apply to Amazon.

If the FTC asserts, in the face of all of that, that it’s own vision of what “appropriate” in-app purchase protections must look like is the only one that suffices to meet the standard required by Section 5’s Unfairness language, it is either being egregiously disingenuous, horrifically vain, just plain obtuse, or some combination of the three.

As I wrote in my testimony:

The application of Section 5’s “unfair acts and practices” prong (the statute at issue in Apple) is circumscribed by Section 45(n) of the FTC Act, which, among other things, proscribes enforcement where injury is “not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

And as Commissioner Wright noted in his dissent in the Apple case,

[T]he Commission effectively rejects an analysis of tradeoffs between the benefits of additional guidance and potential harm to some consumers or to competition from mandating guidance…. I respectfully disagree. These assumptions adopt too cramped a view of consumer benefits under the Unfairness Statement and, without more rigorous analysis to justify their application, are insufficient to establish the Commission’s burden.

We won’t know until we see the complaint whether the FTC has failed to undertake the balancing it neglected to perform in Apple and that it is required to perform under the statute. But it’s hard to believe that it could mount a case against Amazon in light of the facts if it did perform such a balancing. There’s no question that Amazon has implemented conscious and consumer-welfare-enhancing design choices here. The FTC’s effort to nevertheless mandate a different design (and put Amazon under a 20 year consent decree) based on a claim that Amazon’s choices impose greater harms than benefits on consumers seems manifestly unsupportable.

Such a claim almost certainly represents an abuse of the agency’s discretion, and I expect Amazon to trounce the FTC if this case goes to trial.

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.

Earlier this week the New Jersey Assembly unanimously passed a bill to allow direct sales of Tesla cars in New Jersey. (H/T Marina Lao). The bill

Allows a manufacturer (“franchisor,” as defined in P.L.1985, c.361 (C.56:10-26 et seq.)) to directly buy from or sell to consumers a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) at a maximum of four locations in New Jersey.  In addition, the bill requires a manufacturer to own or operate at least one retail facility in New Jersey for the servicing of its vehicles. The manufacturer’s direct sale locations are not required to also serve as a retail service facility.

The bill amends current law to allow any ZEV manufacturer to directly or indirectly buy from and directly sell, offer to sell, or deal to a consumer a ZEV if the manufacturer was licensed by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) on or prior to January 1, 2014.  This bill provides that ZEVs may be directly sold by certain manufacturers, like Tesla Motors, and preempts any rule or regulation that restricts sales exclusively to franchised dealerships.  The provisions of the bill would not prevent a licensed franchisor from operating under an existing license issued by the MVC.

At first cut, it seems good that the legislature is responding to the lunacy of the Christie administration’s previous decision to enforce a rule prohibiting direct sales of automobiles in New Jersey. We have previously discussed that decision at length in previous posts here, here, here and here. And Thom and Mike have taken on a similar rule in their home state of Missouri here and here.

In response to New Jersey’s decision to prohibit direct sales, the International Center for Law & Economics organized an open letter to Governor Christie based in large part on Dan Crane’s writings on the topic here at TOTM and discussing the faulty economics of such a ban. The letter was signed by more than 70 law professors and economists.

But it turns out that the legislative response is nearly as bad as the underlying ban itself.

First, a quick recap.

In our letter we noted that

The Motor Vehicle Commission’s regulation was aimed specifically at stopping one company, Tesla Motors, from directly distributing its electric cars. But the regulation would apply equally to any other innovative manufacturer trying to bring a new automobile to market, as well. There is no justification on any rational economic or public policy grounds for such a restraint of commerce. Rather, the upshot of the regulation is to reduce competition in New Jersey’s automobile market for the benefit of its auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers. It is protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple.

While enforcement of the New Jersey ban was clearly aimed directly at Tesla, it has broader effects. And, of course, its underlying logic is simply indefensible, regardless of which particular manufacturer it affects. The letter explains at length the economics of retail distribution and the misguided, anti-consumer logic of the regulation, and concludes by noting that

In sum, we have not heard a single argument for a direct distribution ban that makes any sense. To the contrary, these arguments simply bolster our belief that the regulations in question are motivated by economic protectionism that favors dealers at the expense of consumers and innovative technologies. It is discouraging to see this ban being used to block a company that is bringing dynamic and environmentally friendly products to market. We strongly encourage you to repeal it, by new legislation if necessary.

Thus it seems heartening that the legislature did, indeed, take up our challenge to repeal the ban.

Except that, in doing so, the legislature managed to write a bill that reflects no understanding whatever of the underlying economic issues at stake. Instead, the legislative response appears largely to be the product of rent seeking,pure and simple, offering only a limited response to Tesla’s squeaky wheel (no pun intended) and leaving the core defects of the ban completely undisturbed.

Instead of acknowledging the underlying absurdity of the limit on direct sales, the bill keeps the ban in place and simply offers a limited exception for Tesla (or other zero emission cars). While the innovative and beneficial nature of Tesla’s cars was an additional reason to oppose banning their direct sale, the specific characteristics of the cars is a minor and ancillary reason to oppose the ban. But the New Jersey legislative response is all about the cars’ emissions characteristics, and in no way does it reflect an appreciation for the fundamental economic defects of the underlying rule.

Moreover, the bill permits direct sales at only four locations (why four? No good reason whatever — presumably it was a political compromise, never the stuff of economic reason) and requires Tesla to operate a service center for its cars in the state. In other words, the regulators are still arbitrarily dictating aspects of car manufacturers’ business organization from on high.

Even worse, however, the bill is constructed to be nothing more than a payoff for a specific firm’s lobbying efforts, thus ensuring that the next (non-zero-emission) Tesla to come along will have to undertake the same efforts to pander to the state.

Far from addressing the serious concerns with the direct sales ban, the bill just perpetuates the culture of political rent seeking such regulations create.

Perhaps it’s better than nothing. Certainly it’s better than nothing for Tesla. But overall, I’d say it’s about the worst possible sort of response, short of nothing.

Last week a group of startup investors wrote a letter to protest what they assume FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed, revised Open Internet NPRM will say.

Bear in mind that an NPRM is a proposal, not a final rule, and its issuance starts a public comment period. Bear in mind, as well, that the proposal isn’t public yet, presumably none of the signatories to this letter has seen it, and the devil is usually in the details. That said, the letter has been getting a lot of press.

I found the letter seriously wanting, and seriously disappointing. But it’s a perfect example of what’s so wrong with this interminable debate on net neutrality.

Below I reproduce the letter in full, in quotes, with my comments interspersed. The key take-away: Neutrality (or non-discrimination) isn’t what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is zero-cost access by content providers to broadband networks. One can surely understand why content providers and those who fund them want their costs of doing business to be lower. But the rhetoric of net neutrality is mismatched with this goal. It’s no wonder they don’t just come out and say it – it’s quite a remarkable claim.

Open Internet Investors Letter

The Honorable Tom Wheeler, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington D.C. 20554

May 8, 2014

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

We write to express our support for a free and open Internet.

We invest in entrepreneurs, investing our own funds and those of our investors (who are individuals, pension funds, endowments, and financial institutions).  We often invest at the earliest stages, when companies include just a handful of founders with largely unproven ideas. But, without lawyers, large teams or major revenues, these small startups have had the opportunity to experiment, adapt, and grow, thanks to equal access to the global market.

“Equal” access has nothing to do with it. No startup is inherently benefitted by being “equal” to others. Maybe this is just careless drafting. But frankly, as I’ll discuss, there are good reasons to think (contra the pro-net neutrality narrative) that startups will be helped by inequality (just like contra the (totally wrong) accepted narrative, payola helps new artists). It says more than they would like about what these investors really want that they advocate “equality” despite the harm it may impose on startups (more on this later).

Presumably what “equal” really means here is “zero cost”: “As long as my startup pays nothing for access to ISPs’ subscribers, it’s fine that we’re all on equal footing.” Wheeler has stated his intent that his proposal would require any prioritization to be available to any who want it, on equivalent, commercially reasonable terms. That’s “equal,” too, so what’s to complain about? But it isn’t really inequality that’s gotten everyone so upset.

Of course, access is never really “zero cost;” start-ups wouldn’t need investors if their costs were zero. In that sense, why is equality of ISP access any more important than other forms of potential equality? Why not mandate price controls on rent? Why not mandate equal rent? A cost is a cost. What’s really going on here is that, like Netflix, these investors want to lower their costs and raise their returns as much as possible, and they want the government to do it for them.

As a result, some of the startups we have invested in have managed to become among the most admired, successful, and influential companies in the world.

No startup became successful as a result of “equality” or even zero-cost access to broadband. No doubt some of their business models were predicated on that assumption. But it didn’t cause their success.

We have made our investment decisions based on the certainty of a level playing field and of assurances against discrimination and access fees from Internet access providers.

And they would make investment decisions based on the possibility of an un-level playing field if that were the status quo. More importantly, the businesses vying for investment dollars might be different ones if they built their business models in a different legal/economic environment. So what? This says nothing about the amount of investment, the types of businesses, the quality of businesses that would arise under a different set of rules. It says only that past specific investments might not have been made.

Unless the contention is that businesses would be systematically worse under a different rule, this is irrelevant. I have seen that claim made, and it’s implicit here, of course, but I’ve seen no evidence to actually support it. Businesses thrive in unequal, cost-ladened environments all the time. It costs about $4 million/30 seconds to advertise during the Super Bowl. Budweiser and PepsiCo paid multiple millions this year to do so; many of their competitors didn’t. With inequality like that, it’s a wonder Sierra Nevada and Dr. Pepper haven’t gone bankrupt.

Indeed, our investment decisions in Internet companies are dependent upon the certainty of an equal-opportunity marketplace.

Again, no they’re not. Equal opportunity is a euphemism for zero cost, or else this is simply absurd on its face. Are these investors so lacking in creativity and ability that they can invest only when there is certainty of equal opportunity? Don’t investors thrive – aren’t they most needed – in environments where arbitrage is possible, where a creative entrepreneur can come up with a risky, novel way to take advantage of differential conditions better than his competitors? Moreover, the implicit equating of “equal-opportunity marketplace” with net neutrality rules is far-fetched. Is that really all that matters?

This is a good time to make a point that is so often missed: The loudest voices for net neutrality are the biggest companies – Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc. That fact should give these investors and everyone else serious pause. Their claim rests on the idea that “equality” is needed, so big companies can’t use an Internet “fast lane” to squash them. Google is decidedly a big company. So why do the big boys want this so much?

The battle is often pitched as one of ISPs vs. (small) content providers. But content providers have far less to worry about and face far less competition from broadband providers than from big, incumbent competitors. It is often claimed that “Netflix was able to pay Comcast’s toll, but a small startup won’t have that luxury.” But Comcast won’t even notice or care about a small startup; its traffic demands will be inconsequential. Netflix can afford to pay for Internet access for precisely the same reason it came to Comcast’s attention: It’s hugely successful, and thus creates a huge amount of traffic.

Based on news reports and your own statements, we are worried that your proposed rules will not provide the necessary certainty that we need to make investment decisions and that these rules will stifle innovation in the Internet sector.

Now, there’s little doubt that legal certainty aids investment decisions. But “certainty” is not in danger here. The rules have to change because the court said so – with pretty clear certainty. And a new rule is not inherently any more or less likely to offer certainty than the previous Open Internet Order, which itself was subject to intense litigation (obviously) and would have been subject to interpretation and inconsistent enforcement (and would have allowed all kinds of paid prioritization, too!). Certainty would be good, but Wheeler’s proposed rule won’t likely do anything about the amount of certainty one way or the other.

If established companies are able to pay for better access speeds or lower latency, the Internet will no longer be a level playing field. Start-ups with applications that are advantaged by speed (such as games, video, or payment systems) will be unlikely to overcome that deficit no matter how innovative their service.

Again, it’s notable that some of the strongest advocates for net neutrality are established companies. Another letter sent out last week included signatures from a bunch of startups, but also Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo!, among others.

In truth it’s hard to see why startup investors would think this helps them. Non-neutrality offers the prospect that a startup might be able to buy priority access to overcome the inherent disadvantage of newness, and to better compete with an established company. Neutrality means that that competitive advantage is impossible, and the baseline relative advantages and disadvantages remain – which helps incumbents, not startups. With a neutral Internet – well, the advantages of the incumbent competitor can’t be dissipated by a startup buying a favorable leg-up in speed and the Netflix’s of the world will be more likely to continue to dominate.

Of course the claim is that incumbents will use their huge resources to gain even more advantage with prioritized access. Implicit in this must be the assumption that the advantage that could be gained by a startup buying priority offers less return for the startup than the cost imposed on it by the inherent disadvantages of reputation, brand awareness, customer base, etc. But that’s not plausible for all or even most startups. And investors exist precisely because they are able to provide funds for which there is a likelihood of a good return – so if paying for priority would help overcome inherent disadvantages, there would be money for it.

Also implicit is the claim that the benefits to incumbents (over and above their natural advantages) from paying for priority, in terms of hamstringing new entrants, will outweigh the cost. This is unlikely generally to be true, as well. They already have advantages. Sure, sometimes they might want to pay for more, but in precisely the cases where it would be worth it to do so, the new entrant would also be most benefited by doing so itself – ensuring, again, that investment funds will be available.

Of course if both incumbents and startups decide paying for priority is better, we’re back to a world of “equality,” so what’s to complain about, based on this letter? This puts into stark relief that what these investors really want is government-mandated, subsidized broadband access, not “equality.”

Now, it’s conceivable that that is the optimal state of affairs, but if it is, it isn’t for the reasons given here, nor has anyone actually demonstrated that it is the case.

Entrepreneurs will need to raise money to buy fast lane services before they have proven that consumers want their product. Investors will extract more equity from entrepreneurs to compensate for the risk.

Internet applications will not be able to afford to create a relationship with millions of consumers by making their service freely available and then build a business over time as they better understand the value consumers find in their service (which is what Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Dropbox and virtually other consumer Internet service did to achieve scale).

In other words: “Subsidize us. We’re worth it.” Maybe. But this is probably more revealing than intended. The Internet cost something to someone to build. (Actually, it cost more than a trillion dollars to broadband providers). This just says “we shouldn’t have to pay them for it now.” Fine, but who, then, and how do you know that forcing someone else to subsidize these startup companies will actually lead to better results? Mightn’t we get less broadband investment such that there is little Internet available for these companies to take advantage of in the first place? If broadband consumers instead of content consumers foot the bill, is that clearly preferable, either from a social welfare perspective, or even the self interest of these investors who, after all, do ultimately rely on consumer spending to earn their return?

Moreover, why is this “build for free, then learn how to monetize over time” business model necessarily better than any other? These startup investors know better than anyone that enshrining existing business models just because they exist is the antithesis of innovation and progress. But that’s exactly what they’re saying – “the successful companies of the past did it this way, so we should get a government guarantee to preserve our ability to do it, too!”

This is the most depressing implication of this letter. These investors and others like them have been responsible for financing enormously valuable innovations. If even they can’t see the hypocrisy of these claims for net neutrality – and worse, choose to propagate it further – then we really have come to a sad place. When innovators argue passionately for stagnation, we’re in trouble.

Instead, creators will have to ask permission of an investor or corporate hierarchy before they can launch. Ideas will be vetted by committees and quirky passion projects will not get a chance. An individual in dorm room or a design studio will not be able to experiment out loud on the Internet. The result will be greater conformity, fewer surprises, and less innovation.

This is just a little too much protest. Creators already have to ask “permission” – or are these investors just opening up their bank accounts to whomever wants their money? The ones that are able to do it on a shoestring, with money saved up from babysitting gigs, may find higher costs, and the need to do more babysitting. But again, there is nothing special about the Internet in this. Let’s mandate zero cost office space and office supplies and developer services and design services and . . . etc. for all – then we’ll have way more “permission-less” startups. If it’s just a handout they want, they should say so, instead of pretending there is a moral or economic welfare basis for their claims.

Further, investors like us will be wary of investing in anything that access providers might consider part of their future product plans for fear they will use the same technical infrastructure to advantage their own services or use network management as an excuse to disadvantage competitive offerings.

This is crazy. For the same reasons I mentioned above, the big access provider (and big incumbent competitor, for that matter) already has huge advantages. If these investors aren’t already wary of investing in anything that Google or Comcast or Apple or… might plan to compete with, they must be terrible at their jobs.

What’s more, Wheeler’s much-reviled proposal (what we know about it, that is), to say nothing of antitrust law, clearly contemplates exactly this sort of foreclosure and addresses it. “Pure” net neutrality doesn’t add much, if anything, to the limits those laws already do or would provide.

Policing this will be almost impossible (even using a standard of “commercial reasonableness”) and access providers do not need to successfully disadvantage their competition; they just need to create a credible threat so that investors like us will be less inclined to back those companies.

You think policing the world of non-neutrality is hard – try policing neutrality. It’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be. It’s simply never been the case that all bits at all times have been treated “neutrally” on the Internet. Any version of an Open Internet Order (just like the last one, for example) will have to recognize this.

Larry Downes compiled a list of the exceptions included in the last Open Internet Order when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the rules in 2011. There are 16 categories of exemption, covering a wide range of fundamental components of broadband connectivity, from CDNs to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. His testimony is a tour de force, and should be required reading for everyone involved in this debate.

But think about how the manifest advantages of these non-neutral aspects of broadband networks would be squared with “real” neutrality. On their face, if these investors are to be taken at their word, these arguments would preclude all of the Open Internet Order’s exemptions, too. And if any sort of inequality is going to be deemed ok, how accurately would regulators distinguish between “illegitimate” inequality and the acceptable kind that lets coffee shops subsidize broadband? How does the simplistic logic of net equality distinguish between, say, Netflix’s colocated servers and a startup like Uber being integrated into Google Maps? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, and the claims and arguments of this letter are woefully inadequate to the task.

We need simple, strong, enforceable rules against discrimination and access fees, not merely against blocking.

No, we don’t. Or, at least, no one has made that case. These investors want a handout; that is the only case this letter makes.

We encourage the Commission to consider all available jurisdictional tools at its disposal in ensuring a free and open Internet that rewards, not disadvantages, investment and entrepreneurship.

… But not investment in broadband, and not entrepreneurship that breaks with the business models of the past. In reality, this letter is simple rent-seeking: “We want to invest in what we know, in what’s been done before, and we don’t want you to do anything to make that any more costly for us. If that entails impairing broadband investment or imposing costs on others, so be it – we’ll still make our outsized returns, and they can write their own letter complaining about ‘inequality.’”

A final point I have to make. Although the investors don’t come right out and say it, many others have, and it’s implicit in the investors’ letter: “Content providers shouldn’t have to pay for broadband. Users already pay for the service, so making content providers pay would just let ISPs double dip.” The claim is deeply problematic.

For starters, it’s another form of the status quo mentality: “Users have always paid and content hasn’t, so we object to any deviation from that.” But it needn’t be that way. And of course models frequently coexist where different parties pay for the same or similar services. Some periodicals are paid for by readers and offer little or no advertising; others charge a subscription and offer paid ads; and still others are offered for free, funded entirely by ads. All of these models work. None is “better” than the other. There is no reason the same isn’t true for broadband and content.

Net neutrality claims that the only proper price to charge on the content side of the market is zero. (Congratulations: You’re in the same club as that cutting-edge, innovative technology, the check, which is cleared at par by government fiat. A subsidy that no doubt explains why checks have managed to last this long). As an economic matter, that’s possible; it could be that zero is the right price. But it most certainly needn’t be, and issues revolving around Netflix’s traffic and the ability of ISPs and Netflix cost-effectively to handle it are evidence that zero may well not be the right price.

The reality is that these sorts of claims are devoid of economic logic — which is presumably why they, like the whole net neutrality “movement” generally, appeal so gratuitously to emotion rather than reason. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope for more from a bunch of savvy financiers.

 

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.

I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

As Geoff posted yesterday, a group of 72 distinguished economists and law professors from across the political spectrum released a letter to Chris Christie pointing out the absurdities of New Jersey’s direct distribution ban. I’m heartened that both Governor Christie and his potential rival for the 2016 Republican nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry, have made statements, here and here, in recent days suggesting that they would support legislation to allow direct distribution. Another potential 2016 Republican contender, has also joined the anti-protectionist fray. This should not be a partisan political issue. Hopefully, thinking people from both parties will realize that these laws help no one but the car dealers.

In the midst of these encouraging developments, I came across a March 5, 2014 letter from General Motors to Ohio Governor John Kasich complaining about proposed legislation that would carve out a special direct-dealing exemption for Tesla in Ohio. I’ve gotta say that I’m sympathetic to GM’s plight. It isn’t fair that Tesla would get a special exemption from regulations applicable to other car dealers. I’m not blaming Tesla, since I assume and hope that Tesla’s legislative strategy is to ask that these laws be repealed or that Tesla be exempted, not that the laws should continue to apply to other manufacturers. But the point of our letter is that no manufacturer should be subject to these restrictions. Tesla may have special reasons to prefer direct distribution, but the laws should be general—and generally permissive of direct distribution. The last thing we need is for a continuation of the dealers’ crony capitalism through a system of selective exemptions from protectionist statutes.

What was most telling about GM’s letter was its straightforward admission that allowing Tesla to engage in direct distribution would give Tesla a “distinct competitive advantage” and would create a “significant disparate impact” on competition in the auto industry. That’s just another way of saying that direct distribution is more efficient. If Tesla will gain a competitive advantage by bypassing dealers, shouldn’t we want all car companies to have that same advantage?

To be clear, there are circumstances were exempting just select companies from a regulatory scheme would give them a competitive advantage not based on superior efficiency in a social-welfare enhancing sense. For example, if the general pollution control regulations are optimally set, then exempting some firms will allow them to externalize costs and thereby obtain a competitive advantage, reducing net social welfare. But that would only be the case if the regulated activity is socially harmful, which direct distribution is not, as our open letter explained. The take-away from GM’s letter should be even more impetus for repealing the direct distribution bans across the board so that consumers can enjoy the benefit of competition among rival manufacturers who all have the right to choose the most efficient means of distribution for them.