Whereas the antitrust rules on a number of once-condemned business practices (e.g., vertical non-price restraints, resale price maintenanceprice squeezes) have become more economically sensible in the last few decades, the law on tying remains an embarrassment.  The sad state of the doctrine is evident in a federal district court’s recent denial of Viacom’s motion to dismiss a tying action by Cablevision.

According to Cablevision’s complaint, Viacom threatened to impose a substantial financial “penalty” (probably by denying a discount) unless Cablevision licensed Viacom’s less popular television programming (the “Suite Networks”) along with its popular “Core Networks” of Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, and MTV.  This arrangement, Cablevision insisted, amounted to a per se illegal tie-in of the Suite Networks to the Core Networks.

Similar tying actions based on cable bundling have failed, and I have previously explained why cable bundling like this is, in fact, efficient.  But putting aside whether  the tie-in at issue here was efficient, the district court’s order is troubling because it illustrates how very unconcerned with efficiency tying doctrine is.

First, the district court rejected–correctly, under ill-founded precedents–Viacom’s argument that Cablevision was required to plead an anticompetitive effect.  It concluded that Cablevision had to allege only four elements: separate tying and tied products, coercion by the seller to force purchase of the tied product along with the tying product, the seller’s possession of market power in the tying product market, and the involvement of a “not insubstantial” dollar volume of commerce in the tied product market.  Once these elements are alleged, the court said,

plaintiffs need not allege, let alone prove, facts addressed to the anticompetitive effects element.  If a plaintiff succeeds in establishing the existence of sufficient market power to create a per se violation, the plaintiff is also relieved of the burden of rebutting any justification the defendant may offer for the tie.

In other words, if a tying plaintiff establishes the four elements listed above, the efficiency of the challenged tie-in is completely irrelevant.  And if a plaintiff merely pleads those four elements, it is entitled to proceed to discovery, which can be crippling for antitrust defendants and often causes them to settle even non-meritorious cases. Given that a great many tie-ins involving the four elements listed above are, in fact, efficient, this is a terrible rule.  It is, however, the law as established in the Supreme Court’s Jefferson Parish decision.  The blame for this silliness therefore rests on that Court, not the district court here.

But the Cablevision order includes a second unfortunate feature for which the district court and the Supreme Court share responsibility.  Having concluded that Cablevision was not required to plead anticompetitive effect, the court went on to say that Cablevision “ha[d], in any event, pleaded facts sufficient to support plausibly an inference of anticompetitive effect.”  Those alleged facts were that Cablevision would have bought content from another seller but for the tie-in:

Cablevision alleges that if it were not forced to carry the Suite Networks, it “would carry other networks on the numerous channel slots that Viacom’s Suite Networks currently occupy.”  (Compl. par. 10.)  Cablevision also alleges that Cablevision would buy other “general programming networks” from Viacom’s competitors absent the tying arrangement.  (Id.)

In other words, the district court reasoned, Cablevision alleged anticompetitive harm merely by pleading that Viacom’s conduct reduced some sales opportunities for its rivals.

But harm to a competitor, standing alone, is not harm to competition.  To establish true anticompetitive harm, Cablevision would have to show that Viacom’s tie-in reduced its rivals’ sales by so much that they lost scale efficiencies so that their average per-unit costs rose.  To make that showing, Cablevision would have to show (or allege, at the motion to dismiss stage) that Viacom’s tying occasioned substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market. “Some” reduction in sales to rivals–while perhaps anticompetitor–is simply not sufficient to show anticompetitive harm.

Because the Supreme Court has emphasized time and again that mere harm to a competitor is not harm to competition, the gaffe here is primarily the district court’s fault.  But at least a little blame should fall on the Supreme Court.  That Court has never precisely specified the potential anticompetitive harm from tying: that a tie-in may enhance market power in the tied or tying product markets if, but only if, it results in substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market.

If the Court were to do so, and were to jettison the silly quasi-per se rule of Jefferson Parish, tying doctrine would be far more defensible.

[NOTE: For a more detailed explanation of why substantial tied market foreclosure is a prerequisite to anticompetitive harm from tie-ins, see my article, Appropriate Liability Rules for Tying and Bundled Discounting, 72 Ohio St. L. J. 909 (2011).]

Paul H. Rubin and Joseph S. Rubin advance the provocative position that some crony capitalism may be welfare enhancing. With all due respect, I am not convinced by their defense of government-business cronyism.  “Second best correction” arguments can be made with respect to ANY inefficient government rule.  In reality, it is almost impossible to calibrate the degree of the distortion created by the initial regulation, so there is no way of stating credibly that the “counter-distortion” is on net favorable to society.  More fundamentally, such counter-distortions are the products of rent-seeking activities by firms and other interest groups, which care nothing about the net social surplus effects of the first and counter-distortion.  The problem with allowing counter-distortions is that firms that are harmed thereby (think of less politically connected companies that are hurt when a big player takes advantage of Export-Import Bank subsidies) either will suffer, or will lobby (using scarce resources) for “third-line” or “tertiary” distortions to alleviate the harmful effects of the initial counter-distortions.  Those new distortions in turn will spawn a continuing series of responses, causing additional unanticipated consequences and attendant welfare losses.

It follows that the best policy is not to defend counter-distortions, which very seldom if ever (and then only through sheer chance) appropriately offset the initial distortions.  (Since the counter-distortions will be rife with new regulatory complexities, they are bound to be costly to implement and highly likely to be destructive of social surplus.)  Rather, the best, simplest, and cleanest policy is to work to get rid of the initial distortions.  If companies complain about other policies that hurt them (generated, for instance, by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or by Food and Drug Administration regulatory delays), the answer is to reform or repeal those bad policies, not to retain inherently welfare-distortive laws such as the Ex-Im Bank authorization.  The alternative approach would devolve into a justification for a web of ever more complex and intrusive federal regulations and interest group-generated “carve-outs.”

This logic applies generally.  For example, the best solution to the welfare-reducing effect of particular Obamacare mandates is not to create a patchwork of exceptions for certain politically-favored businesses and labor groups, but, rather, to repeal counterproductive government-induced health care market distortions.  Similarly, the answer to an economically damaging tax code is not to create a patchwork of credits for politically-favored industries, but, rather, to simplify the code and apply it neutrally, thereby promoting economic growth across industry sectors.

The argument that Ex-Im Bank activities are an example of a “welfare-enhancing” counter-distortion is particularly strained, given the fact that most U.S. exporters gain no benefits from Ex-Im Bank funding, while the American taxpayer foots the bill.  Indeed, capital is diverted away from “unlucky” exporters to the politically connected few who know how to play the Washington game (well-capitalized companies that are least in need of the taxpayer’s largesse).  As stated by Doug Bandow in Forbes, “[n]o doubt, Exim financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.  Unfortunately, it is easier to see the benefits of the former than the costs of the latter.”  In short, the recitation of Ex-Im Bank’s alleged “benefits” to American exporters who are “seen” ignores the harm imposed on other “unseen” American companies and taxpayers.  (What’s more, responding to Ex-Im Bank, foreign governments are incentivized to impose their own subsidy programs to counteract the Ex-Im Bank subsidies.)  Thus, the case for retaining Ex-Im Bank is nothing more than another example of Bastiat’s “broken window” fallacy.     

In sum, the goal should be to simplify legal structures and repeal welfare-inimical laws and regulations, not try to correct them through new inherently flawed regulatory intrusions.  In my view, the only examples of rent-seeking that might yield net social benefits are those associated with regulatory reform (such as the expiration of the Ex-Im Bank authorization) or with the creation of new markets (as Gordon Brady and I have argued).

My son Joe and I have an op-ed in today’s WSJ that should stir up some controversy.

Opinion Wall Street Journal

The Case for Crony Capitalism

Many government regulations choke off entirely legal avenues of potential bank profits.

By

Paul H. Rubin And

Joseph S. Rubin

July 7, 2014 7:34 p.m. ET

Economics has a formal “theory of the second best” that in simplified terms may be expressed this way: If a government intervention leads to inefficiencies in markets but can’t be eliminated, an additional intervention may be the next-best alternative to eliminate the inefficiencies caused by the first.

It’s not the optimal solution to government-induced inefficiency, but it may be the best we can do. And it applies in many cases to what today is variously called “corporate welfare,” “loopholes,” or even “crony capitalism.”

The U.S. economy is rife with inefficient interventions—laws, regulations, taxes and subsidies that lead to inefficient markets. What some disparage as crony capitalism is in many cases an attempt to reduce the costs of these interventions.

Consider the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that assists U.S. firms in financing international transactions. A first-best efficient policy would be to eliminate the agency, on grounds that if private banks will not finance a transaction, then the transaction is not worthwhile. The government shouldn’t become the financier of otherwise unprofitable transactions.

Yet that’s not the whole story. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for example, makes it illegal for U.S. businesses to pay bribes to foreign officials. But it is not always so easy to determine what is illegal, and companies may be penalized for normal business practices. It is certainly not cheap to comply. The Ex-Im Bank website says that “to avoid such consequences [of the FCPA], many firms have implemented detailed compliance programs intended to prevent and to detect any improper payments by employees and by third-party agents.”

This adds to the costs of U.S. firms doing business abroad, lowering the amount of legitimate trade. Maybe the Ex-Im Bank is a reasonable, second-best response. One government subsidy may be necessary to help overcome other inefficiencies imposed by the government to begin with.

The banking bailout is another purported example of cronyism and corporate welfare. The poor lending practices of banks were undoubtedly part of the cause of the Great Recession. But banks, as well as government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae FNMA +0.50% and Freddie Mac, FMCC +0.51% were under tremendous pressure to make loans to unqualified borrowers.

Many other government regulations choke off entirely legal avenues of potential profit for banks by limiting with whom and under what circumstances they may do business. Examples include the financing of online and payday lenders, and firms that process payments for these lenders. If regulations cause banks to take excessive risks and limit profits, it may be efficient to provide some protection from these risks when things go bad, particularly if the damage is in large part caused by government policies.

Some claim that Medicare Part D, which pays for drugs, was a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. But 40 years of research has clearly shown that the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process makes drug development and approval unnecessarily and inefficiently expensive. Perhaps, in this environment, supplementing the costs of drugs may move us toward a more efficient drug policy, and bring more life-saving drugs to market.

Corporate taxes are too high, retarding investment. But when cutting rates is impossible, maybe tax breaks that encourage investment of various sorts is the second-best response. Environmental Protection Agency regulations are costly and inefficient. In some cases waivers or exceptions are less a payoff to cronies than a way to counter inefficient restrictions.

A second-best world is messy, and there may be better ways to overcome government-induced inefficiency. Yet sometimes what appear to be special favors may actually be moves in the direction of efficiency.

Of course, some examples of crony capitalism are worthy of the term, and the scorn that goes with it. For example, the various farm price-support programs, including sugar quotas and the ethanol program, which raise food prices world-wide and increase poverty, would be very difficult to justify under any second-best theory.

Nonetheless, as long as there is a push for more regulation, and particularly inefficient regulation, with little opportunity to rein in the already severe drag that these regulations impose on the economy, second-best solutions may be useful to temper some of their costs.

Paul H. Rubin is an economics professor at Emory University. His son, Joseph S. Rubin, is an attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP in Washington, D.C.

 

 

Today’s (July 5, 2014) New York Times has an interesting story about rationing of water in California.  There are apparently rules in place urging people to cut back on water use, but they are apparently not well enforced.  Unsurprisingly, these appeals and unenforced rules are having relatively small effects.  So many municipalities are urging neighbors to report each other for misuses of water.  Economists know that a price increase would be the most efficient method of  limiting use.  But we may not have known that other forms of rationing would lead to increasing conflict among neighbors and increasing ill will.  This is an example of the sort of hostility generated by non-market institutions, as opposed to the cooperation generated by markets, and further evidence of the fundamental morality of markets.   Of course, the Times being what it is, there is no mention of the possibility of price increases to reduce water consumption, although the article does mention “water flowing very cheaply” but there is no suggestion that this should be changed.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

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

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

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

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

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

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court Adopts (Some of) Our Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Dropbox and similar services? The Court took pains to note that its opinion does not consider “whether the public performance right is infringed when the user of a service pays primarily for something other than the transmission of copyrighted works, such as the remote storage of content.” The Court also cited the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, observing that “to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.”

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

Aereo Is Liable for Copyright Infringement Under the Volitional Conduct Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court’s Holding Doesn’t Imperil Cloud Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

I share Alden’s disappointment that the Supreme Court did not overrule Basic v. Levinson in Monday’s Halliburton decision.  I’m also surprised by the Court’s ruling.  As I explained in this lengthy post, I expected the Court to alter Basic to require Rule 10b-5 plaintiffs to prove that the complained of misrepresentation occasioned a price effect.  Instead, the Court maintained Basic’s rule that price impact is presumed if the plaintiff proves that the misinformation was public and material and that “the stock traded in an efficient market.”

An upshot of Monday’s decision is that courts adjudicating Rule 10b-5 class actions will continue to face at the outset not the fairly simple question of whether the misstatement at issue moved the relevant stock’s price but instead whether that stock was traded in an “efficient market.”  Focusing on market efficiency—rather than on price impact, ultimately the key question—raises practical difficulties and creates a bit of a paradox.

First, the practical difficulties.  How is a court to know whether the market in which a security is traded is “efficient” (or, given that market efficiency is not a binary matter, “efficient enough”)?  Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion suggested this is a simple inquiry, but it’s not.  Courts typically consider a number of factors to assess market efficiency.  According to one famous district court decision (Cammer), the relevant factors are: “(1) the stock’s average weekly trading volume; (2) the number of securities analysts that followed and reported on the stock; (3) the presence of market makers and arbitrageurs; (4) the company’s eligibility to file a Form S-3 Registration Statement; and (5) a cause-and-effect relationship, over time, between unexpected corporate events or financial releases and an immediate response in stock price.”  In re Xcelera.com Securities Litig., 430 F.3d 503 (2005).  Other courts have supplemented these Cammer factors with a few others: market capitalization, the bid/ask spread, float, and analyses of autocorrelation.  No one can say, though, how each factor should be assessed (e.g., How many securities analysts must follow the stock? How much autocorrelation is permissible?  How large may the bid-ask spread be?).  Nor is there guidance on how to balance factors when some weigh in favor of efficiency and others don’t.  It’s a crapshoot.

In addition, focusing at the outset on whether the market at issue is efficient creates a market definition paradox in Rule 10b-5 actions.  When courts assess whether the market for a company’s stock is efficient, they assume that “the market” consists of trades in that company’s stock.  This is apparent from the Cammer (and supplementary) factors, all of which are company-specific.  It’s also implicit in portions of the Halliburton majority opinion, such as the observation that the plaintiff “submitted an event study of vari­ous episodes that might have been expected to affect the price of Halliburton’s stock, in order to demonstrate that the market for that stock takes account of material, public information about the company.”  (Emphasis added.)

But the semi-strong version of the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis (ECMH), the economic theorem upon which Basic rests, rejects the notion that there is a “market” for a single company’s stock.  Both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic reason that public misinformation is quickly incorporated into the price of securities traded on public exchanges.  Private misinformation, by contrast, usually is not – even when such misinformation results in large trades that significantly alter the quantity demanded or quantity supplied of the relevant stock.  The reason private misinformation is not taken to affect a security’s price, even when it results in substantial changes in quantities demanded or supplied, is because the relevant market is not the stock of that particular company but is instead the universe of stocks offering a similar package of risk and reward.  Because a private misinformation-induced increase in demand for a single company’s stock – even if large relative to the  number of shares outstanding – is likely to be tiny compared to the number of available shares of close substitutes for that company’s stock, private misinformation about a company is unlikely to be reflected in the price of the company’s stock.  Public misinformation, by contrast, affects a stock’s price because it not only changes quantities demanded and supplied but also causes investors to adjust their willingness-to-pay or willingness-to-accept.  Accordingly, both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic assume that only public misinformation can be assured to affect stock prices.  That’s why, as the Halliburton majority observes, there is a presumption of price effect only if the plaintiff proves public misinformation, materiality, and an efficient market.  (For a nice explanation of this idea in the context of a real case, see Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in West v. Prudential Securities.)

The paradox, then, is that Basic and the semi-strong ECMH, in requiring public misinformation, assume that the relevant market is not company specific.  But for purposes of determining whether the “market” is efficient, the market is assumed to consist of trades of a single company’s stock.

The Supreme Court could have avoided both the practical difficulties in assessing market efficiency and the theoretical paradox identified herein had it altered Basic to require plaintiffs to establish not an efficient market but an actual price impact. Alas.