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R Street’s Sasha Moss recently posted a piece on TechDirt describing the alleged shortcomings of the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017 (RCSAA) — proposed legislative adjustments to the Copyright Office, recently passed in the House and introduced in the Senate last month (with identical language).

Many of the article’s points are well taken. Nevertheless, they don’t support the article’s call for the Senate to “jettison [the bill] entirely,” nor the assertion that “[a]s currently written, the bill serves no purpose, and Congress shouldn’t waste its time on it.”

R Street’s main complaint with the legislation is that it doesn’t include other proposals in a House Judiciary Committee whitepaper on Copyright Office modernization. But condemning the RCSAA simply for failing to incorporate all conceivable Copyright Office improvements fails to adequately take account of the political realities confronting Congress — in other words, it lets the perfect be the enemy of the good. It also undermines R Street’s own stated preference for Copyright Office modernization effected through “targeted and immediately implementable solutions.”

Everyone — even R Street — acknowledges that we need to modernize the Copyright office. But none of the arguments in favor of a theoretical, “better” bill is undermined or impeded by passing this bill first. While there is certainly more that Congress can do on this front, the RCSAA is a sensible, targeted piece of legislation that begins to build the new foundation for a twenty-first century Copyright Office.

Process over politics

The proposed bill is simple: It would make the Register of Copyrights a nominated and confirmed position. For reasons almost forgotten over the last century and a half, the head of the Copyright Office is currently selected at the sole discretion of the Librarian of Congress. The Copyright Office was placed in the Library merely as a way to grow the Library’s collection with copies of copyrighted works.

More than 100 years later, most everyone acknowledges that the Copyright Office has lagged behind the times. And many think the problem lies with the Office’s placement within the Library, which is plagued with information technology and other problems, and has a distinctly different mission than the Copyright Office. The only real question is what to do about it.

Separating the the Copyright Office from the Library is a straightforward and seemingly apolitical step toward modernization. And yet, somewhat inexplicably, R Street claims that the bill

amounts largely to a partisan battle over who will have the power to select the next Register: [Current Librarian of Congress] Hayden, who was appointed by Barack Obama, or President Donald Trump.

But this is a pretty farfetched characterization.

First, the House passed the bill 378-48, with 145 Democrats joining 233 Republicans in support. That’s more than three-quarters of the Democratic caucus.

Moreover, legislation to make the Register a nominated and confirmed position has been under discussion for more than four years — long before either Dr. Hayden was nominated or anyone knew that Donald Trump (or any Republican at all, for that matter) would be president.

R Street also claims that the legislation

will make the register and the Copyright Office more politicized and vulnerable to capture by special interests, [and that] the nomination process could delay modernization efforts [because of Trump’s] confirmation backlog.

But precisely the opposite seems far more likely — as Sasha herself has previously recognized:

Clarifying the office’s lines of authority does have the benefit of making it more politically accountable…. The [House] bill takes a positive step forward in promoting accountability.

As far as I’m aware, no one claims that Dr. Hayden was “politicized” or that Librarians are vulnerable to capture because they are nominated and confirmed. And a Senate confirmation process will be more transparent than unilateral appointment by the Librarian, and will give the electorate a (nominal) voice in the Register’s selection. Surely unilateral selection of the Register by the Librarian is more susceptible to undue influence.

With respect to the modernization process, we should also not forget that the Copyright Office currently has an Acting Register in Karyn Temple Claggett, who is perfectly capable of moving the modernization process forward. And any limits on her ability to do so would arise from the very tenuousness of her position that the RCSAA is intended to address.

Modernizing the Copyright Office one piece at a time

It’s certainly true, as the article notes, that the legislation doesn’t include a number of other sensible proposals for Copyright Office modernization. In particular, it points to ideas like forming a stakeholder advisory board, creating new chief economist and technologist positions, upgrading the Office’s information technology systems, and creating a small claims court.

To be sure, these could be beneficial reforms, as ICLE (and many others) have noted. But I would take some advice from R Street’s own “pragmatic approach” to promoting efficient government “with the full realization that progress on the ground tends to be made one inch at a time.”

R Street acknowledges that the legislation’s authors have indicated that this is but a beginning step and that they plan to tackle the other issues in due course. At a time when passage of any legislation on any topic is a challenge, it seems appropriate to defer to those in Congress who affirmatively want more modernization about how big a bill to start with.

In any event, it seems perfectly sensible to address the Register selection process before tackling the other issues, which may require more detailed discussions of policy and cost. And with the Copyright Office currently lacking a permanent Register and discussions underway about finding a new one, addressing any changes Congress deems necessary in the selection process seems like the most pressing issue, if they are to be resolved prior to the next pick being made.

Further, because the Register would presumably be deeply involved in the selection and operation of any new advisory board, chief economist and technologist, IT system, or small claims process, Congress can also be forgiven for wanting to address the Register issue first. Moreover, a Register who can be summarily dismissed by the Librarian likely doesn’t have the needed autonomy to fully and effectively implement the other proposals from the whitepaper. Why build a house on a shaky foundation when you can fix the foundation first?

Process over substance

All of which leaves the question why R Street opposes a bill that was passed by a bipartisan supermajority in the House; that effects precisely the kind of targeted, incremental reform that R Street promotes; and that implements a specific reform that R Street favors.

The legislation has widespread support beyond Congress, although the TechDirt piece gives this support short shrift. Instead, it notes that “some” in the content industry support the legislation, but lists only the Motion Picture Association of America. There is a subtle undercurrent of the typical substantive copyright debate, in which “enlightened” thinking on copyright is set against the presumptively malicious overreach of the movie studios. But the piece neglects to mention the support of more than 70 large and small content creators, technology companies, labor unions, and free market and civil rights groups, among others.

Sensible process reforms should be implementable without the rancor that plagues most substantive copyright debates. But it’s difficult to escape. Copyright minimalists are skeptical of an effectual Copyright Office if it is more likely to promote policies that reinforce robust copyright, even if they support sensible process reforms and more-accountable government in the abstract. And, to be fair, copyright proponents are thrilled when their substantive positions might be bolstered by promotion of sensible process reforms.

But the truth is that no one really knows how an independent and accountable Copyright Office will act with respect to contentious, substantive issues. Perhaps most likely, increased accountability via nomination and confirmation will introduce more variance in its positions. In other words, on substance, the best guess is that greater Copyright Office accountability and modernization will be a wash — leaving only process itself as a sensible basis on which to assess reform. And on that basis, there is really no reason to oppose this widely supported, incremental step toward a modern US Copyright Office.

This week, the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments  on the proposed revision to the joint U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust-IP Licensing Guidelines. Overall, the guidelines present a commendable framework for the IP-Antitrust intersection, in particular as they broadly recognize the value of IP and licensing in spurring both innovation and commercialization.

Although our assessment of the proposed guidelines is generally positive,  we do go on to offer some constructive criticism. In particular, we believe, first, that the proposed guidelines should more strongly recognize that a refusal to license does not deserve special scrutiny; and, second, that traditional antitrust analysis is largely inappropriate for the examination of innovation or R&D markets.

On refusals to license,

Many of the product innovation cases that have come before the courts rely upon what amounts to an implicit essential facilities argument. The theories that drive such cases, although not explicitly relying upon the essential facilities doctrine, encourage claims based on variants of arguments about interoperability and access to intellectual property (or products protected by intellectual property). But, the problem with such arguments is that they assume, incorrectly, that there is no opportunity for meaningful competition with a strong incumbent in the face of innovation, or that the absence of competitors in these markets indicates inefficiency … Thanks to the very elements of IP that help them to obtain market dominance, firms in New Economy technology markets are also vulnerable to smaller, more nimble new entrants that can quickly enter and supplant incumbents by leveraging their own technological innovation.

Further, since a right to exclude is a fundamental component of IP rights, a refusal to license IP should continue to be generally considered as outside the scope of antitrust inquiries.

And, with respect to conducting antitrust analysis of R&D or innovation “markets,” we note first that “it is the effects on consumer welfare against which antitrust analysis and remedies are measured” before going on to note that the nature of R&D makes it effects very difficult to measure on consumer welfare. Thus, we recommend that the the agencies continue to focus on actual goods and services markets:

[C]ompetition among research and development departments is not necessarily a reliable driver of innovation … R&D “markets” are inevitably driven by a desire to innovate with no way of knowing exactly what form or route such an effort will take. R&D is an inherently speculative endeavor, and standard antitrust analysis applied to R&D will be inherently flawed because “[a] challenge for any standard applied to innovation is that antitrust analysis is likely to occur after the innovation, but ex post outcomes reveal little about whether the innovation was a good decision ex ante, when the decision was made.”

The FCC’s blind, headlong drive to “unlock” the set-top box market is disconnected from both legal and market realities. Legally speaking, and as we’ve noted on this blog many times over the past few months (see here, here and here), the set-top box proposal is nothing short of an assault on contracts, property rights, and the basic freedom of consumers to shape their own video experience.

Although much of the impulse driving the Chairman to tilt at set-top box windmills involves a distrust that MVPDs could ever do anything procompetitive, Comcast’s recent decision (actually, long in the making) to include an app from Netflix — their alleged arch-rival — on the X1 platform highlights the FCC’s poor grasp of market realities as well. And it hardly seems that Comcast was dragged kicking and screaming to this point, as many of the features it includes have been long under development and include important customer-centered enhancements:

We built this experience on the core foundational elements of the X1 platform, taking advantage of key technical advances like universal search, natural language processing, IP stream processing and a cloud-based infrastructure.  We have expanded X1’s voice control to make watching Netflix content as simple as saying, “Continue watching Daredevil.”

Yet, on the topic of consumer video choice, Chairman Wheeler lives in two separate worlds. On the one hand, he recognizes that:

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content.

But, on the other hand, he asserts that when it comes to set-top boxes, there is no such choice, and consumers have suffered accordingly.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that nearly all pay-TV content is already available from a large number of outlets, and that competition between devices and services that deliver this content is plentiful.

In fact, ten years ago — before Apple TV, Roku, Xfinity X1 and Hulu (among too many others to list) — Gigi Sohn, Chairman Wheeler’s chief legal counsel, argued before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries.  Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. (emphasis added)

And, even on the FCC’s own terms, the multichannel video market is presumptively competitive nationwide with

direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers’ market share of multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) subscribers [rising] to 33.8%. “Telco” MVPDs increased their market share to 13% and their nationwide footprint grew by 5%. Broadband service providers such as Google Fiber also expanded their footprints. Meanwhile, cable operators’ market share fell to 52.8% of MVPD subscribers.

Online video distributor (OVD) services continue to grow in popularity with consumers. Netflix now has 47 million or more subscribers in the U.S., Amazon Prime has close to 60 million, and Hulu has close to 12 million. By contrast, cable MVPD subscriptions dropped to 53.7 million households in 2014.

The extent of competition has expanded dramatically over the years, and Comcast’s inclusion of Netflix in its ecosystem is only the latest indication of this market evolution.

And to further underscore the outdated notion of focusing on “boxes,” AT&T just announced that it would be offering a fully apps-based version of its Direct TV service. And what was one of the main drivers of AT&T being able to go in this direction? It was because the company realized the good economic sense of ditching boxes altogether:

The company will be able to give consumers a break [on price] because of the low cost of delivering the service. AT&T won’t have to send trucks to install cables or set-top boxes; customers just need to download an app. 

And lest you think that Comcast’s move was merely a cynical response meant to undermine the Commissioner (although, it is quite enjoyable on that score), the truth is that Comcast has no choice but to offer services like this on its platform — and it’s been making moves like this for quite some time (see here and here). Everyone knows, MVPDs included, that apps distributed on a range of video platforms are the future. If Comcast didn’t get on board the apps train, it would have been left behind at the station.

And there is other precedent for expecting just this convergence of video offerings on a platform. For instance, Amazon’s Fire TV gives consumers the Amazon video suite — available through the Prime Video subscription — but they also give you access to apps like Netflix, Hulu. (Of course Amazon is a so-called edge provider, so when it makes the exact same sort of moves that Comcast is now making, its easy for those who insist on old market definitions to miss the parallels.)

The point is, where Amazon and Comcast are going to make their money is in driving overall usage of their platform because, inevitably, no single service is going to have every piece of content a given user wants. Long term viability in the video market is necessarily going to be about offering consumers more choice, not less. And, in this world, the box that happens to be delivering the content is basically irrelevant; it’s the competition between platform providers that matters.

It’s not quite so simple to spur innovation. Just ask the EU as it resorts to levying punitive retroactive taxes on productive American companies in order to ostensibly level the playing field (among other things) for struggling European startups. Thus it’s truly confusing when groups go on a wholesale offensive against patent rights — one of the cornerstones of American law that has contributed a great deal toward our unparalleled success as an innovative economy.

Take EFF, for instance. The advocacy organization has recently been peddling sample state legislation it calls the “Reclaim Invention Act,” which it claims is targeted at reining in so-called “patent trolls.” Leaving aside potential ulterior motives (like making it impossible to get software patents at all), I am left wondering what EFF actually hopes to achieve.

“Troll” is a scary sounding word, but what exactly is wrapped up in EFF’s definition? According to EFF’s proposed legislation, a “patent assertion entity” (the polite term for “patent troll”) is any entity that primarily derives its income through the licensing of patents – as opposed to actually producing the invention for public consumption. But this is just wrong. As Zorina Khan has noted, the basic premise upon which patent law was constructed in the U.S. was never predicated upon whether an invention would actually be produced:

The primary concern was access to the new information, and the ability of other inventors to benefit from the discovery either through licensing, inventing around the idea, or at expiration of the patent grant. The emphasis was certainly not on the production of goods; in fact, anyone who had previously commercialized an invention lost the right of exclusion vested in patents. The decision about how or whether the patent should be exploited remained completely within the discretion of the patentee, in the same way that the owner of physical property is allowed to determine its use or nonuse.

Patents are property. As with other forms of property, patent holders are free to transfer them to whomever they wish, and are free to license them as they see fit. The mere act of exercising property rights simply cannot be the basis for punitive treatment by the state. And, like it or not, licensing inventions or selling the property rights to an invention is very often how inventors are compensated for their work. Whether one likes the Patent Act in particular or not is irrelevant; as long as we have patents, these are fundamental economic and legal facts.

Further, the view implicit in EFF’s legislative proposal completely ignores the fact that the people or companies that may excel at inventing things (the province of scientists, for example) may not be so skilled at commercializing things (the province of entrepreneurs). Moreover, inventions can be enormously expensive to commercialize. In such cases, it could very well be the most economically efficient result to allow some third party with the requisite expertise or the means to build it, to purchase and manage the rights to the patent, and to allow them to arrange for production of the invention through licensing agreements. Intermediaries are nothing new in society, and, despite popular epithets about “middlemen,” they actually provide a necessary function with respect to mobilizing capital and enabling production.

Granted, some companies will exhibit actual “troll” behavior, but the question is not whether some actors are bad, but whether the whole system overall optimizes innovation and otherwise contributes to greater social welfare. Licensing patents in itself is a benign practice, so long as the companies that manage the patents are not abusive. And, of course, among the entities that engage in patent licensing, one would assume that universities would be the most unobjectionable of all parties.

Thus, it’s extremely disappointing that EFF would choose to single out universities as aiders and abettors of “trolls” — and in so doing recommend punitive treatment. And what EFF recommends is shockingly draconian. It doesn’t suggest that there should be heightened review in IPR proceedings, or that there should be fee shifting or other case-by-case sanctions doled out for unwise partnership decisions. No, according to the model legislation, universities would be outright cut off from government financial aid or other state funding, and any technology transfers would be void, unless they:

determine whether a patent is the most effective way to bring a new invention to a broad user base before filing for a patent that covers that invention[;] … prioritize technology transfer that develops its inventions and scales their potential user base[;] … endeavor to nurture startups that will create new jobs, products, and services[;] … endeavor to assign and license patents only to entities that require such licenses for active commercialization efforts or further research and development[;] … foster agreements and relationships that include the sharing of know-how and practical experience to maximize the value of the assignment or license of the corresponding patents; and … prioritize the public interest in all patent transactions.

Never mind the fact that recent cases like Alice Corp., Octane Fitness, and Highmark — as well as the new inter partes review process — seem to be putting effective downward pressure on frivolous suits (as well as, potentially, non-frivolous suits, for that matter); apparently EFF thinks that putting the screws to universities is what’s needed to finally overcome the (disputed) problems of excessive patent litigation.

Perhaps reflecting that even EFF itself knows that its model legislation is more of a publicity stunt than a serious proposal, most of what it recommends is either so ill-defined as to be useless (e.g., “prioritize public interest in all patent transactions?” What does that even mean?) or is completely mixed up.

For instance, the entire point of a university technology transfer office is that educational institutions and university researchers are not themselves in a position to adequately commercialize inventions. Questions of how large a user base a given invention can reach, or how best to scale products, grow markets, or create jobs are best left to entrepreneurs and business people. The very reason a technology transfer office would license or sell its patents to a third party is to discover these efficiencies.

And if a university engages in a transfer that, upon closer scrutiny, runs afoul of this rather fuzzy bit of legislation, any such transfers will be deemed void. Which means that universities will either have to expend enormous resources to find willing partners, or will spend millions on lawsuits and contract restitution damages. Enacting these feel-good  mandates into state law is at best useless, and most likely a tool for crusading plaintiff’s attorneys to use to harass universities.

Universities: Don’t you dare commercialize that invention!

As I noted above, it’s really surprising that groups like EFF are going after universities, as their educational mission and general devotion to improving social welfare should make them the darlings of social justice crusaders. However, as public institutions with budgets and tax statuses dependent on political will, universities are both unable to route around organizational challenges (like losing student aid or preferred tax status) and are probably unwilling to engage in wholesale PR defensive warfare for fear of offending a necessary political constituency. Thus, universities are very juicy targets — particularly when they engage in “dirty” commercial activities of any sort, no matter how attenuated.

And lest you think that universities wouldn’t actually be harassed (other than in the abstract by the likes of EFF) over patents, it turns out that it’s happening even now, even without EFF’s proposed law.

For the last five years Princeton University has been locked in a lawsuit with some residents of Princeton, New Jersey who have embarked upon a transparently self-interested play to divert university funds to their own pockets. Their weapon of choice? A challenge to Princeton’s tax-exempt status based on the fact that the school licenses and sells its patented inventions.

The plaintiffs’ core argument in Fields v. Princeton is that the University should be  a taxpaying entity because it occasionally generates patent licensing revenues from a small fraction of the research that its faculty conducts in University buildings.

The Princeton case is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which deserves special attention because it runs squarely up against a laudable federal law that is intended to promote research, development, and patent commercialization.

In the early 1980s Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it possible for universities to retain ownership over discoveries made in campus labs. The aim of the law was to encourage essential basic research that had historically been underdeveloped. Previously, the rights to any such federally-funded discoveries automatically became the property of the federal government, which, not surprisingly, put a damper on universities’ incentives to innovate.

When universities collaborate with industry — a major aim of Bayh-Dole — innovation is encouraged, breakthroughs occur, and society as a whole is better off. About a quarter of the top drugs approved since 1981 came from university research, as did many life-changing products we now take for granted, like Google, web browsers, email, cochlear implants and major components of cell phones. Since the passage of the Act, a boom in commercialized patents has yielded billions of dollars of economic activity.

Under the Act innovators are also rewarded: Qualifying institutions like Princeton are required to share royalties with the researchers who make these crucial discoveries. The University has no choice in the matter; to refuse to share the revenues would constitute a violation of the terms of federal research funding. But the Fields suit ignores this reality an,d in much the same way as EFF’s proposed legislation, will force a stark choice upon Princeton University: engage with industry, increase social utility and face lawsuits, or keep your head down and your inventions to yourself.

A Hobson’s Choice

Thus, things like the Fields suit and EFF’s proposed legislation are worse than costly distractions for universities; they are major disincentives to the commercialization of university inventions. This may not be the intended consequence of these actions, but it is an entirely predictable one.

Faced with legislation that punishes them for being insufficiently entrepreneurial and suits that attack them for bothering to commercialize at all, universities will have to make a hobson’s choice: commercialize the small fraction of research that might yield licensing revenues and potentially face massive legal liability, or simply decide to forego commercialization (and much basic research) altogether.

The risk here, obviously, is that research institutions will choose the latter in order to guard against the significant organizational costs that could result from a change in their tax status or a thicket of lawsuits that emerge from voided technology transfers (let alone the risk of losing student aid money).

But this is not what we want as a society. We want the optimal level of invention, innovation, and commercialization. What anti-patent extremists and short-sighted state governments may obtain for us instead, however, is a status quo much like Europe where the legal and regulatory systems perpetually keep innovation on a low simmer.

Copyright law, ever a sore point in some quarters, has found a new field of battle in the FCC’s recent set-top box proposal. At the request of members of Congress, the Copyright Office recently wrote a rather thorough letter outlining its view of the FCC’s proposal on rightsholders.

In sum, the CR’s letter was an even-handed look at the proposal which concluded:

As a threshold matter, it seems critical that any revised proposal respect the authority of creators to manage the exploitation of their copyrighted works through private licensing arrangements, because regulatory actions that undermine such arrangements would be inconsistent with the rights granted under the Copyright Act.

This fairly uncontroversial statement of basic legal principle was met with cries of alarm. And Stanford’s CIS had a post from Affiliated Scholar Annemarie Bridy that managed to trot out breathless comparisons to inapposite legal theories while simultaneously misconstruing the “fair use” doctrine (as well as how Copyright law works in the video market, for that matter).

Look out! Lochner is coming!

In its letter the Copyright Office warned the FCC that its proposed rules have the potential to disrupt the web of contracts that underlie cable programming, and by extension, risk infringing the rights of copyright holders to commercially exploit their property. This analysis actually tracks what Geoff Manne and I wrote in both our initial comment and our reply comment to the set-top box proposal.

Yet Professor Bridy seems to believe that, notwithstanding the guarantees of both the Constitution and Section 106 of the Copyright Act, the FCC should have the power to abrogate licensing contracts between rightsholders and third parties.  She believes that

[t]he Office’s view is essentially that the Copyright Act gives right holders not only the limited range of rights enumerated in Section 106 (i.e., reproduction, preparation of derivative works, distribution, public display, and public performance), but also a much broader and more amorphous right to “manage the commercial exploitation” of copyrighted works in whatever ways they see fit and can accomplish in the marketplace, without any regulatory interference from the government.

What in the world does this even mean? A necessary logical corollary of the Section 106 rights includes the right to exploit works commercially as rightsholders see fit. Otherwise, what could it possibly mean to have the right to control the reproduction or distribution of a work? The truth is that Section 106 sets out a general set of rights that inhere in rightsholders with respect to their protected works, and that commercial exploitation is merely a subset of this total bundle of rights.

The ability to contract with other parties over these rights is also a necessary corollary of the property rights recognized in Section 106. After all, the right to exclude implies by necessity the right to include. Which is exactly what a licensing arrangement is.

But wait, there’s more — she actually managed to pull out the Lochner bogeyman to validate her argument!

The Office’s absolutist logic concerning freedom of contract in the copyright licensing domain is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s now-infamous reasoning in Lochner v. New York, a 1905 case that invalidated a state law limiting maximum working hours for bakers on the ground that it violated employer-employee freedom of contract. The Court in Lochner deprived the government of the ability to provide basic protections for workers in a labor environment that subjected them to unhealthful and unsafe conditions. As Julie Cohen describes it, “‘Lochner’ has become an epithet used to characterize an outmoded, over-narrow way of thinking about state and federal economic regulation; it goes without saying that hardly anybody takes the doctrine it represents seriously.”

This is quite a leap of logic, as there is precious little in common between the letter from the Copyright Office and the Lochner opinion aside from the fact that both contain the word “contracts” in their pages.  Perhaps the most critical problem with Professor Bridy’s analogy is the fact that Lochner was about a legislature interacting with the common law system of contract, whereas the FCC is a body subordinate to Congress, and IP is both constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed. A sovereign may be entitled to interfere with the operation of common law, but an administrative agency does not have the same sort of legal status as a legislature when redefining general legal rights.

The key argument that Professor Bridy offered in support of her belief that the FCC should be free to abrogate contracts at will is that “[r]egulatory limits on private bargains may come in the form of antitrust laws or telecommunications laws or, as here, telecommunications regulations that further antitrust ends.”  However, this completely misunderstand U.S. constitutional doctrine.

In particular, as Geoff Manne and I discussed in our set-top box comments to the FCC, using one constitutional clause to end-run another constitutional clause is generally a no-no:

Regardless of whether or how well the rules effect the purpose of Sec. 629, copyright violations cannot be justified by recourse to the Communications Act. Provisions of the Communications Act — enacted under Congress’s Commerce Clause power — cannot be used to create an end run around limitations imposed by the Copyright Act under the Constitution’s Copyright Clause. “Congress cannot evade the limits of one clause of the Constitution by resort to another,” and thus neither can an agency acting within the scope of power delegated to it by Congress. Establishing a regulatory scheme under the Communications Act whereby compliance by regulated parties forces them to violate content creators’ copyrights is plainly unconstitutional.

Congress is of course free to establish the implementation of the Copyright Act as it sees fit. However, unless Congress itself acts to change that implementation, the FCC — or any other party — is not at liberty to interfere with rightsholders’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.

You Have to Break the Law Before You Raise a Defense

Another bone of contention upon which Professor Bridy gnaws is a concern that licensing contracts will abrogate an alleged right to “fair use” by making the defense harder to muster:  

One of the more troubling aspects of the Copyright Office’s letter is the length to which it goes to assert that right holders must be free in their licensing agreements with MVPDs to bargain away the public’s fair use rights… Of course, the right of consumers to time-shift video programming for personal use has been enshrined in law since Sony v. Universal in 1984. There’s no uncertainty about that particular fair use question—none at all.

The major problem with this reasoning (notwithstanding the somewhat misleading drafting of Section 107) is that “fair use” is not an affirmative right, it is an affirmative defense. Despite claims that “fair use” is a right, the Supreme Court has noted on at least two separate occasions (1, 2) that Section 107 was “structured… [as]… an affirmative defense requiring a case-by-case analysis.”

Moreover, important as the Sony case is, it does not not establish that “[t]here’s no uncertainty about [time-shifting as a] fair use question—none at all.” What it actually establishes is that, given the facts of that case, time-shifting was a fair use. Not for nothing the Sony Court notes at the outset of its opinion that

An explanation of our rejection of respondents’ unprecedented attempt to impose copyright liability upon the distributors of copying equipment requires a quite detailed recitation of the findings of the District Court.

But more generally, the Sony doctrine stands for the proposition that:

“The limited scope of the copyright holder’s statutory monopoly, like the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution, reflects a balance of competing claims upon the public interest: creative work is to be encouraged and rewarded, but private motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts. The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good. ‘The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the monopoly,’ this Court has said, ‘lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.’ Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U. S. 123, 286 U. S. 127. See Kendall v. Winsor, 21 How. 322, 62 U. S. 327-328; Grant v. Raymond, 6 Pet. 218, 31 U. S. 241-242. When technological change has rendered its literal terms ambiguous, the Copyright Act must be construed in light of this basic purpose.” Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U. S. 151, 422 U. S. 156 (1975) (footnotes omitted).

In other words, courts must balance competing interests to maximize “the general benefits derived by the public,” subject to technological change and other criteria that might shift that balance in any particular case.  

Thus, even as an affirmative defense, nothing is guaranteed. The court will have to walk through a balancing test, and only after that point, and if the accused party’s behavior has not tipped the scales against herself, will the court find the use a “fair use.”  

As I noted before,

Not surprisingly, other courts are inclined to follow the Supreme Court. Thus the Eleventh Circuit, the Southern District of New York, and the Central District of California (here and here), to name but a few, all explicitly refer to fair use as an affirmative defense. Oh, and the Ninth Circuit did too, at least until Lenz.

The Lenz case was an interesting one because, despite the above noted Supreme Court precedent treating “fair use” as a defense, it is one of the very few cases that has held “fair use” to be an affirmative right (in that case, the court decided that Section 1201 of the DMCA required consideration of “fair use” as a part of filling out a take-down notice). And in doing so, it too tried to rely on Sony to restructure the nature of “fair use.” But as I have previously written, “[i]t bears noting that the Court in Sony Corp. did not discuss whether or not fair use is an affirmative defense, whereas Acuff Rose (decided 10 years after Sony Corp.) and Harper & Row decisions do.”

Further, even the Eleventh Circuit, which the Ninth relied upon in Lenz, later clarified its position that the above-noted Supreme Court precedent definitely binds lower courts, and that “fair use” is in fact an affirmative defense.

Thus, to say that rightsholders’ licensing contracts somehow impinge a “right” of fair use completely puts the cart before the horse. Remember, as an affirmative defense, “fair use” is an excuse for otherwise infringing behavior, and rightsholders are well within their constitutional and statutory rights to avoid potential infringing uses.

Think about it this way. When you commit a crime you can raise a defense: for instance, an insanity defense. But just because you might be excused for committing a crime if a court finds you were not operating with full faculties, this does not entitle every insane person to go out and commit that crime. The insanity defense can be raised only after a crime is committed, and at that point it will be examined by a judge and jury to determine if applying the defense furthers the overall criminal law scheme.

“Fair use” works in exactly the same manner. And even though Sony described how time- and space-shifting were potentially permissible, it did so only by determining on those facts that the balancing test came out to allow it. So, maybe a particular time-shifting use would be “fair use.” But maybe not. More likely, in this case, even the allegedly well-established “fair use” of time-shifting in the context of today’s digital media, on-demand programing, Netflix and the like may not meet that burden.

And what this means is that a rightsholder does not have an ex ante obligation to consider whether a particular contractual clause might in some fashion or other give rise to a “fair use” defense.

The contrary point of view makes no sense. Because “fair use” is a defense, forcing parties to build “fair use” considerations into their contractual negotiations essentially requires them to build in an allowance for infringement — and one that a court might or might not ever find appropriate in light of the requisite balancing of interests. That just can’t be right.

Instead, I think this article is just a piece of the larger IP-skeptic movement. I suspect that when “fair use” was in its initial stages of development, it was intended as a fairly gentle softening on the limits of intellectual property — something like the “public necessity” doctrine in common law with respect to real property and trespass. However, that is just not how “fair use” advocates see it today. As Geoff Manne has noted, the idea of “permissionless innovation” has wrongly come to mean “no contracts required (or permitted)”:  

[Permissionless innovation] is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright…, which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

But this position is nonsense — intangible property is still property. And at root, property is just a set of legal relations between persons that defines their rights and obligations with respect to some “thing.” It doesn’t matter if you can hold that thing in your hand or not. As property, IP can be subject to transfer and control through voluntarily created contracts.

Even if “fair use” were some sort of as-yet unknown fundamental right, it would still be subject to limitations upon it by other rights and obligations. To claim that “fair use” should somehow trump the right of a property holder to dispose of the property as she wishes is completely at odds with our legal system.

As we noted in our issue brief on the impending ICANN transition, given the vast scope of the problem, voluntary relationships between registries, registrars and private industry will be a critical aspect of controlling online piracy. Last week the MPAA and registry operator Radix announced a new “trusted notifier” program under which the MPAA will be permitted to submit evidence of large-scale piracy occurring in Radix-managed top-level domains.

In many respects, this resembles the program that the MPAA and Donuts established in February— however as the first non-U.S. based program, this is a major step forward. As in the Donuts agreement, the new program will contain a number of procedural safeguards, including a requirement that clear evidence of pervasive infringement is occurring, along with a document attesting to the fact that the MPAA first attempted to resolve the situation with the name registrar directly. If, after attempting to work with its associated registrars to contact the website owner, Radix determines that the website is engaged illegal conduct it will either place the domain name on hold or else suspend it entirely.

These sorts of self-help agreements are really crucial to the future of Internet governance, and not merely for their facilitation of removing infringing content. Once ICANN becomes an independent organization that is completely untethered from the U.S. Government, it will be up to the community at large to maintain the credibility of DNS management.

And the importance of these self-help agreements is particularly acute in light of ICANN’s long standing refusal to enforce its own contractual restrictions in place with registries and registrars. As we noted in our brief:

Very likely, [ICANN’s governance structure] will be found through voluntary, private arrangements between registries, registrars, and third parties. An overarching commitment to enforcing legitimate contracts, therefore, even ones that espouse particular policy objectives, will be a core attribute of a well-organized ICANN.

In fact, far and away ICANN’s most significant failing has been the abdication of its responsibility to enforce the terms of its own contracts, particularly the Registrar Accreditation Agreement. The effect of this obstinance is that ICANN has failed to exercise its obligation to maintain a “secure, stable, [and] resilient… Internet” free of costly “pollutants” like piracy, illegal prescription drugs, and phishing sites that impose significant costs on others with relative impunity.

In March, ICANN submitted its stewardship proposal to Congress — a document that outlines how ICANN proposes to operate as an independent organization. Much criticism of the transition has focused on the possibility of authoritarian regimes co-opting the root zone file and related DNS activities. It’s in everyone’s interest to prevent clearly illegal conduct from occurring online. Otherwise, without a minimal standard of governance, the arguments for a multi-lateral government run Internet become much easier to advance.

And certainly a big part of Congress’s consideration of the transition will be whether ICANN can plausibly continue to operate as a legitimate steward of the DNS. When registries step forward and agree to maintain at least a minimal baseline of pro-social conduct, it goes a long way toward moving the transition forward and guaranteeing a free and open Internet for the future.

Trade secrets are frequently one of the most powerful forms of intellectual property that a company has in its competitive arsenal. Particularly given the ongoing interest in whittling away at the property rights of patent holders (e.g. the enhanced IPR process, and even the more tame VENUE Act), trade secrets are a critical means for firms to obtain and retain advantages in highly competitive markets.

Yet, historically the scope of federal recognition of these quasi-property rights was exceedingly circumscribed. That is until yesterday when President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) into law. The Act is designed to create a uniform body of federal law that will allow jurisdiction-straddling entities to more effectively enforce their often very valuable interests in proprietary information. Despite the handful of critics of this effort over the last few years, the law passed Congress with minimal friction, and, at least at this early stage, seems like a fairly laudable step in the right direction.

The Act contains a number of important provisions, including providing uniform federal jurisdiction over trade secret actions across the United States, the potential for civil seizure of instrumentalities of misappropriation when injunctions would be insufficient, a clear damages calculation and recovery of fees, and certain safeguards that protect employees from suit when switching employers or engaging in whistleblowing.

A few of the provisions of the law are particularly interesting and bear some examination, as they will undoubtedly be hot spots for litigation in the years to come.

First, the DTSA does not preempt existing state trade secret laws. Instead it creates a federal overlay as a separate cause of action. The critics believe that this gives plaintiffs too much power insofar as they can now pick and choose whether to pursue a claim in state or federal court. Further — and this criticism I take more seriously — adding a federal law doesn’t do much to clarify the ways that an individual might run afoul of trade secret law. If anything it marginally increases uncertainty as there is now one more law to consider on top of all of the state trade secret laws.

Nonetheless, even though a company is free to bring both state and federal trade secret actions against an individual — and likely will do so when there is a misappropriation — I’m not sure why this is a bad thing. If a company sues a would-be spy, the point is not to bury them in protracted litigation, so much as it is to keep them from immediately fleeing to a foreign jurisdiction with valuable information. Thus, the federal jurisdiction provides a more expedient tool that steps around the inherent latency in obtaining an order from one state court that subsequently one or more other state courts need to recognize and enforce in order to prevent the release of the information.

And when a suit is brought between two companies, it seems hard to believe that an additional federal claim on top of a state claim will really be the difference between life or death for the companies. The litigation would be expensive and time consuming whether or not the federal claim exists, and in all likelihood the discovery and legal arguments will end up being fairly identical (the DTSA is modeled, more or less, after the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which has been adopted to varying extent by 48 states).

Second, under “extraordinary circumstances,” the DTSA allows for an ex parte court-ordered civil seizure of any misappropriated trade secrets, or property associated with the theft (e.g. computers, flash drives, etc.). And the relevant question here is, of course, just how “extraordinary” must an “extraordinary circumstance” be ? Likely, very extraordinary.

In this era of networked devices, why would a defendant who seeks to steal trade secrets not immediately transfer the valuable information to an offshore server? I’m sure there have to be instances where such a transfer fails to take place — perhaps in an effort to evade detection an individual might strictly keep information on a thumb drive, thus making civil seizure a good option. Still, I don’t quite grasp the utility of this provision beyond a really narrow set of circumstances, particularly given the equitable powers that district courts already have.

Also, the aforementioned critics essentially agree with this point, notwithstanding having pointed it out as a problem. They described the provision as possibly “superfluous” since a plaintiff needs to make a showing that Rule 65(b) preliminary relief would be inadequate. I am as big a fan of property rights as the next classical liberal, but I have trouble seeing how this provision will end up being a net negative.

Courts are generally reluctant to seize property when there are other forms of relief available, and given the fact that any proprietary information will most likely get out instantly anyway, it seems basically impossible, under most claims that would be brought, to get a seizure order that would have any effect.

What’s left, then, are very narrow, rare circumstances in which a judge really sees an urgent need to seize property. And, likely, in the very few cases where seizure will be appropriate, the plaintiffs most emphatically won’t regard the provision as superfluous, while in the overwhelming majority of cases, defendants needn’t fear the provision at all.

One of the more prominent concerns of critics is that the federal law will be a tool with which to control or punish former employees as they move on to work for competitors. However, even this concern appears overblown. Professor Sharon Sandeen, for example, believes that the Act will create “trade secret trolls” who will be able to ruin the careers of former employees (although, in her testimony she doesn’t exactly spell out how the DTSA in particular facilitates this, and existing state laws do not). Nonetheless, the DTSA contains a provision that disallows enforcement against individuals under the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine. That doctrine, sometimes allowed in state courts, provides former employers with the ability to seek damages and injunctions when a former employee goes to work for a competitor and, during the course of that new employment, it is “inevitable” that trade secrets would be disclosed. I haven’t done extended research on that doctrine, but at least its inability to be applied to DTSA claims seems to answer critics’ concerns reasonably well.

On the whole, the law seems aimed at helping companies that depend upon trade secrets to vindicate their interests in a timely and effective manner, and with minimal downside to employees. Although it is somewhat perplexing that the law does not displace state laws — certainly that would have added a degree of clarity. If anything, the DTSA provides for an extension of trade secret protection that Congress already began in 1996 with the Economic Espionage Act. That Act, a criminal law, makes it a crime punishable by a fine and up to ten years in prison when an individual misappropriates trade secrets when undertaken in connection with a foreign power. The shortcoming in that law, however, are obvious: (1) it requires the involvement of a foreign government, which is just not the common case for industrial espionage, and (2) it relies on a federal prosecutor to take up the case. The DTSA, on the other hand, gives companies what seems like a long overdue federal right to curb similar behavior in the more ordinary circumstance.

The lifecycle of a law is a curious one; born to fanfare, a great solution to a great problem, but ultimately doomed to age badly as lawyers seek to shoehorn wholly inappropriate technologies and circumstances into its ambit. The latest chapter in the book of badly aging laws comes to us courtesy of yet another dysfunctional feature of our political system: the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process.

In 1988, President Reagan nominated Judge Bork for a spot on the US Supreme Court. During the confirmation process following his nomination, a reporter was able to obtain a list of videos he and his family had rented from local video rental stores (You remember those, right?). In response to this invasion of privacy — by a reporter whose intention was to publicize and thereby (in some fashion) embarrass or “expose” Judge Bork — Congress enacted the Video Privacy Protection Act (“VPPA”).

In short, the VPPA makes it illegal for a “video tape service provider” to knowingly disclose to third parties any “personally identifiable information” in connection with the viewing habits of a “consumer” who uses its services. Left as written and confined to the scope originally intended for it, the Act seems more or less fine. However, over the last few years, plaintiffs have begun to use the Act as a weapon with which to attack common Internet business models in a manner wholly out of keeping with drafters’ intent.

And with a decision that promises to be a windfall for hungry plaintiff’s attorneys everywhere, the First Circuit recently allowed a plaintiff, Alexander Yershov, to make it past a 12(b)(6) motion on a claim that Gannett violated the VPPA with its  USA Today Android mobile app.

What’s in a name (or Android ID) ?

The app in question allowed Mr. Yershov to view videos without creating an account, providing his personal details, or otherwise subscribing (in the generally accepted sense of the term) to USA Today’s content. What Gannett did do, however, was to provide to Adobe Systems the Android ID and GPS location data associated with Mr. Yershov’s use of the app’s video content.

In interpreting the VPPA in a post-Blockbuster world, the First Circuit panel (which, apropos of nothing, included retired Justice Souter) had to wrestle with whether Mr. Yershov counts as a “subscriber,” and to what extent an Android ID and location information count as “personally identifying information” under the Act. Relying on the possibility that Adobe might be able to infer the identity of the plaintiff given its access to data from other web properties, and given the court’s rather gut-level instinct that an app user is a “subscriber,” the court allowed the plaintiff to survive the 12(b)(6) motion.

The PII point is the more arguable of the two, as the statutory language is somewhat vague. Under the Act, PIII “includes information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services from a video tape service provider.” On this score the court decided that GPS data plus an Android ID (or each alone — it wasn’t completely clear) could constitute information protected under the Act (at least for purposes of a 12(b)(6) motion):

The statutory term “personally identifiable information” is awkward and unclear. The definition of that term… adds little clarity beyond training our focus on the question whether the information identifies the person who obtained the video…. Nevertheless, the language reasonably conveys the point that PII is not limited to information that explicitly names a person.

OK (maybe). But where the court goes off the rails is in its determination that an Android ID, GPS data, or a list of videos is, in itself, enough to identify anyone.

It might be reasonable to conclude that Adobe could use that information in combination with other information it collects from yet other third parties (fourth parties?) in order to build up a reliable, personally identifiable profile. But the statute’s language doesn’t hang on such a combination. Instead, the court’s reasoning finds potential liability by reading this exact sort of prohibition into the statute:

Adobe takes this and other information culled from a variety of sources to create user profiles comprised of a given user’s personal information, online behavioral data, and device identifiers… These digital dossiers provide Adobe and its clients with “an intimate look at the different types of materials consumed by the individual” … While there is certainly a point at which the linkage of information to identity becomes too uncertain, or too dependent on too much yet-to-be-done, or unforeseeable detective work, here the linkage, as plausibly alleged, is both firm and readily foreseeable to Gannett.

Despite its hedging about uncertain linkages, the court’s reasoning remains contingent on an awful lot of other moving parts — something not found in either the text of the law, nor the legislative history of the Act.

The information sharing identified by the court is in no way the sort of simple disclosure of PII that easily identifies a particular person in the way that, say, Blockbuster Video would have been able to do in 1988 with disclosure of its viewing lists.  Yet the court purports to find a basis for its holding in the abstract nature of the language in the VPPA:

Had Congress intended such a narrow and simple construction [as specifying a precise definition for PII], it would have had no reason to fashion the more abstract formulation contained in the statute.

Again… maybe. Maybe Congress meant to future-proof the provision, and didn’t want the statute construed as being confined to the simple disclosure of name, address, phone number, and so forth. I doubt, though, that it really meant to encompass the sharing of any information that might, at some point, by some unknown third parties be assembled into a profile that, just maybe if you squint at it hard enough, will identify a particular person and their viewing habits.

Passive Subscriptions?

What seems pretty clear, however, is that the court got it wrong when it declared that Mr. Yershov was a “subscriber” to USA Today by virtue of simply downloading an app from the Play Store.

The VPPA prohibits disclosure of a “consumer’s” PII — with “consumer” meaning “any renter, purchaser, or subscriber of goods or services from a video tape service provider.” In this case (as presumably will happen in most future VPPA cases involving free apps and websites), the plaintiff claims that he is a “subscriber” to a “video tape” service.

The court built its view of “subscriber” predominantly on two bases: (1) you don’t need to actually pay anything to count as a subscriber (with which I agree), and (2) that something about installing an app that can send you push notifications is different enough than frequenting a website, that a user, no matter how casual, becomes a “subscriber”:

When opened for the first time, the App presents a screen that seeks the user’s permission for it to “push” or display notifications on the device. After choosing “Yes” or “No,” the user is directed to the App’s main user interface.

The court characterized this connection between USA Today and Yershov as “seamless” — ostensibly because the app facilitates push notifications to the end user.

Thus, simply because it offers an app that can send push notifications to users, and because this app sometimes shows videos, a website or Internet service — in this case, an app portal for a newspaper company — becomes a “video tape service,” offering content to “subscribers.” And by sharing information in a manner that is nowhere mentioned in the statute and that on its own is not capable of actually identifying anyone, the company suddenly becomes subject to what will undoubtedly be an avalanche of lawsuits (at least in the first circuit).

Preposterous as this may seem on its face, it gets worse. Nothing in the court’s opinion is limited to “apps,” and the “logic” would seem to apply to the general web as well (whether the “seamless” experience is provided by push notifications or some other technology that facilitates tighter interaction with users). But, rest assured, the court believes that

[B]y installing the App on his phone, thereby establishing seamless access to an electronic version of USA Today, Yershov established a relationship with Gannett that is materially different from what would have been the case had USA Today simply remained one of millions of sites on the web that Yershov might have accessed through a web browser.

Thank goodness it’s “materially” different… although just going by the reasoning in this opinion, I don’t see how that can possibly be true.

What happens when web browsers can enable push notifications between users and servers? Well, I guess we’ll find out soon because major browsers now support this feature. Further, other technologies — like websockets — allow for continuous two-way communication between users and corporate sites. Does this change the calculus? Does it meet the court’s “test”? If so, the court’s exceedingly vague reasoning provides little guidance (and a whole lot of red meat for lawsuits).

To bolster its view that apps are qualitatively different than web sites with regard to their delivery to consumers, the court asks “[w]hy, after all, did Gannett develop and seek to induce downloading of the App?” I don’t know, because… cell phones?

And this bit of “reasoning” does nothing for the court’s opinion, in fact. Gannett undertook development of a web site in the first place because some cross-section of the public was interested in reading news online (and that was certainly the case for any electronic distribution pre-2007). No less, consumers have increasingly been moving toward using mobile devices for their online activities. Though it’s a debatable point, apps can often provide a better user experience than that provided by a mobile browser. Regardless, the line between “app” and “web site” is increasingly a blurry one, especially on mobile devices, and with the proliferation of HTML5 and frameworks like Google’s Progressive Web Apps, the line will only grow more indistinct. That Gannett was seeking to provide the public with an app has nothing to do with whether it intended to develop a more “intimate” relationship with mobile app users than it has with web users.

The 11th Circuit, at least, understands this. In Ellis v. Cartoon Network, it held that a mere user of an app — without more — could not count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA:

The dictionary definitions of the term “subscriber” we have quoted above have a common thread. And that common thread is that “subscription” involves some type of commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity. As one district court succinctly put it: “Subscriptions involve some or [most] of the following [factors]: payment, registration, commitment, delivery, [expressed association,] and/or access to restricted content.”

The Eleventh Circuit’s point is crystal clear, and I’m not sure how the First Circuit failed to appreciate it (particularly since it was the district court below in the Yershov case that the Eleventh Circuit was citing). Instead, the court got tied up in asking whether or not a payment was required to constitute a “subscription.” But that’s wrong. What’s needed is some affirmative step – something more than just downloading an app, and certainly something more than merely accessing a web site.

Without that step — a “commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity” — the development of technology that simply offers a different mode of interaction between users and content promises to transform the VPPA into a tremendously powerful weapon in the hands of eager attorneys, and a massive threat to the advertising-based business models that have enabled the growth of the web.

How could this possibly not apply to websites?

In fact, there is no way this opinion won’t be picked up by plaintiff’s attorneys in suits against web sites that allow ad networks to collect any information on their users. Web sites may not have access to exact GPS data (for now), but they do have access to fairly accurate location data, cookies, and a host of other data about their users. And with browser-based push notifications and other technologies being developed to create what the court calls a “seamless” experience for users, any user of a web site will count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA. The potential damage to the business models that have funded the growth of the Internet is hard to overstate.

There is hope, however.

Hulu faced a similar challenge over the last few years arising out of its collection of viewer data on its platform and the sharing of that data with third-party ad services in order to provide better targeted and, importantly, more user-relevant marketing. Last year it actually won a summary judgment motion on the basis that it had no way of knowing that Facebook (the third-party with which it was sharing data) would reassemble the data in order to identify particular users and their viewing habits. Nevertheless, Huu has previously lost motions on the subscriber and PII issues.

Hulu has, however, previously raised one issue in its filings on which the district court punted, but that could hold the key to putting these abusive litigations to bed.

The VPPA provides a very narrowly written exception to the prohibition on information sharing when such sharing is “incident to the ordinary course of business” of the “video tape service provider.” “Ordinary course of business” in this context means  “debt collection activities, order fulfillment, request processing, and the transfer of ownership.” In one of its motions, Hulu argued that

the section shows that Congress took into account that providers use third parties in their business operations and “‘allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’

The district court didn’t grant Hulu summary judgment on the issue, essentially passing on the question. But in 2014 the Seventh Circuit reviewed a very similar set of circumstances in Sterk v. Redbox and found that the exception applied. In that case Redbox had a business relationship with Stream, a third party that provided Redbox with automated customer service functions. The Seventh Circuit found that information sharing in such a relationship fell within Redbox’s “ordinary course of business”, and so Redbox was entitled to summary judgment on the VPPA claims against it.

This is essentially the same argument that Hulu was making. Third-party ad networks most certainly provide a service to corporations that serve content over the web. Hulu, Gannett and every other publisher on the web surely could provide their own ad platforms on their own properties. But by doing so they would lose the economic benefits that come from specialization and economies of scale. Thus, working with a third-party ad network pretty clearly replaces the “order fulfillment” and “request processing” functions of a content platform.

The Big Picture

And, stepping back for a moment, it’s important to take in the big picture. The point of the VPPA was to prevent public disclosures that would chill speech or embarrass individuals; the reporter in 1987 set out to expose or embarrass Judge Bork.  This is the situation the VPPA’s drafters had in mind when they wrote the Act. But the VPPA was most emphatically not designed to punish Internet business models — especially of a sort that was largely unknown in 1988 — that serve the interests of consumers.

The 1988 Senate report on the bill, for instance, notes that “[t]he bill permits the disclosure of personally identifiable information under appropriate and clearly defined circumstances. For example… companies may sell mailing lists that do not disclose the actual selections of their customers.”  Moreover, the “[Act] also allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’”

Congress plainly contemplated companies being able to monetize their data. And this just as plainly includes the common practice in automated tracking systems on the web today that use customers’ viewing habits to serve them with highly personalized web experiences.

Sites that serve targeted advertising aren’t in the business of embarrassing consumers or abusing their information by revealing it publicly. And, most important, nothing in the VPPA declares that information sharing is prohibited if third party partners could theoretically construct a profile of users. The technology to construct these profiles simply didn’t exist in 1988, and there is nothing in the Act or its legislative history to support the idea that the VPPA should be employed against the content platforms that outsource marketing to ad networks.

What would make sense is to actually try to fit modern practice in with the design and intent of the VPPA. If, for instance, third-party ad networks were using the profiles they created to extort, blackmail, embarrass, or otherwise coerce individuals, the practice certainly falls outside of course of business, and should be actionable.

But as it stands, much like the TCPA, the VPPA threatens to become a costly technological anachronism. Future courts should take the lead of the Eleventh and Seventh circuits, and make the law operate in the way it was actually intended. Gannett still has the opportunity to appeal for an en banc hearing, and after that for cert before the Supreme Court. But the circuit split this presents is the least of our worries. If this issue is not resolved in a way that permits platforms to continue to outsource their marketing efforts as they do today, the effects on innovation could be drastic.

Web platforms — which includes much more than just online newspapers — depend upon targeted ads to support their efforts. This applies to mobile apps as well. The “freemium” model has eclipsed the premium model for apps — a fact that expresses the preferences of both consumers at large as well as producers. Using the VPPA as a hammer to smash these business models will hurt everyone except, of course, for plaintiff’s attorneys.

It appears that White House’s zeal for progressive-era legal theory has … progressed (or regressed?) further. Late last week President Obama signed an Executive Order that nominally claims to direct executive agencies (and “strongly encourages” independent agencies) to adopt “pro-competitive” policies. It’s called Steps to Increase Competition and Better Inform Consumers and Workers to Support Continued Growth of the American Economy, and was produced alongside an issue brief from the Council of Economic Advisors titled Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power.

TL;DR version: the Order and its brief do not appear so much aimed at protecting consumers or competition, as they are at providing justification for favored regulatory adventures.

In truth, it’s not exactly clear what problem the President is trying to solve. And there is language in both the Order and the brief that could be interpreted in a positive light, and, likewise, language that could be more of a shot across the bow of “unruly” corporate citizens who have not gotten in line with the President’s agenda. Most of the Order and the corresponding CEA brief read as a rote recital of basic antitrust principles: price fixing bad, collusion bad, competition good. That said, there were two items in the Order that particularly stood out.

The (Maybe) Good

Section 2 of the Order states that

Executive departments … with authorities that could be used to enhance competition (agencies) shall … use those authorities to promote competition, arm consumers and workers with the information they need to make informed choices, and eliminate regulations that restrict competition without corresponding benefits to the American public. (emphasis added)

Obviously this is music to the ears of anyone who has thought that agencies should be required to do a basic economic analysis before undertaking brave voyages of regulatory adventure. And this is what the Supreme Court was getting at in Michigan v. EPA when it examined the meaning of the phrase “appropriate” in connection with environmental regulations:

One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.

Thus, if this Order follows the direction of Michigan v. EPA, and it becomes the standard for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulation (and to review old regulations through such an analysis), then wonderful! Moreover, this mandate to agencies to reduce regulations that restrict competition could lead to an unexpected reformation of a variety of regulations – even outside of the agencies themselves. For instance, the FTC is laudable in its ongoing efforts both to correct anticompetitive state licensing laws as well as to resist state-protected incumbents, such as taxi-cab companies.

Still, I have trouble believing that the President — and this goes for any president, really, regardless of party — would truly intend for agencies under his control to actually cede regulatory ground when a little thing like economic reality points in a different direction than official policy. After all, there was ample information available that the Title II requirements on broadband providers would be both costly and result in reduced capital expenditures, and the White House nonetheless encouraged the FCC to go ahead with reclassification.

And this isn’t the first time that the President has directed agencies to perform retrospective review of regulation (see the Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens Order of 2012). To date, however, there appears to be little evidence that the burdens of the regulatory state have lessened. Last year set a record for the page count of the Federal Register (80k+ pages), and the data suggest that the cost of the regulatory state is only increasing. Thus, despite the pleasant noises the Order makes with regard to imposing economic discipline on agencies – and despite the good example Canada has set for us in this regard – I am not optimistic of the actual result.

And the (maybe) good builds an important bridge to the (probably) bad of the Order. It is well and good to direct agencies to engage in economic calculation when they write and administer regulations, but such calculation must be in earnest, and must be directed by the learning that was hard earned over the course of the development of antitrust jurisprudence in the US. As Geoffrey Manne and Josh Wright have noted:

Without a serious methodological commitment to economic science, the incorporation of economics into antitrust is merely a façade, allowing regulators and judges to select whichever economic model fits their earlier beliefs or policy preferences rather than the model that best fits the real‐world data. Still, economic theory remains essential to antitrust law. Economic analysis constrains and harnesses antitrust law so that it protects consumers rather than competitors.

Unfortunately, the brief does not indicate that it is interested in more than a façade of economic rigor. For instance, it relies on the outmoded 50 firm revenue concentration numbers gathered by the Census Bureau to support the proposition that the industries themselves are highly concentrated and, therefore, are anticompetitive. But, it’s been fairly well understood since the 1970s that concentration says nothing directly about monopoly power and its exercise. In fact, concentration can often be seen as an indicator of superior efficiency that results in better outcomes for consumers (depending on the industry).

The (Probably) Bad

Apart from general concerns (such as having a host of federal agencies with no antitrust expertise now engaging in competition turf wars) there is one specific area that could have a dramatically bad result for long term policy, and that moreover reflects either ignorance or willful blindness of antitrust jurisprudence. Specifically, the Order directs agencies to

identify specific actions that they can take in their areas of responsibility to build upon efforts to detect abuses such as price fixing, anticompetitive behavior in labor and other input markets, exclusionary conduct, and blocking access to critical resources that are needed for competitive entry. (emphasis added).

It then goes on to say that

agencies shall submit … an initial list of … any specific practices, such as blocking access to critical resources, that potentially restrict meaningful consumer or worker choice or unduly stifle new market entrants (emphasis added)

The generally uncontroversial language regarding price fixing and exclusionary conduct are bromides – after all, as the Order notes, we already have the FTC and DOJ very actively policing this sort of conduct. What’s novel here, however, is that the highlighted language above seems to amount to a mandate to executive agencies (and a strong suggestion to independent agencies) that they begin to seek out “essential facilities” within their regulated industries.

But “critical resources … needed for competitive entry” could mean nearly anything, depending on how you define competition and relevant markets. And asking non-antitrust agencies to integrate one of the more esoteric (and controversial) parts of antitrust law into their mission is going to be a recipe for disaster.

In fact, this may be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.

In short, the essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.” One important reason for the broad criticism is because

At bottom, a plaintiff … is saying that the defendant has a valuable facility that it would be difficult to reproduce … But … the fact that the defendant has a highly valued facility is a reason to reject sharing, not to require it, since forced sharing “may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” (quoting Trinko)

Further, it’s really hard to say when one business is so critical to a particular market that its own internal functions need to be exposed for competitors’ advantage. For instance, is Big Data – which the CEA brief specifically notes as a potential “critical resource” — an essential facility when one company serves so many consumers that it has effectively developed an entire market that it dominates? ( In case you are wondering, it’s actually not). When exactly does a firm so outcompete its rivals that access to its business infrastructure can be seen by regulators as “essential” to competition? And is this just a set-up for punishing success — which hardly promotes competition, innovation or consumer welfare?

And, let’s be honest here, when the CEA is considering Big Data as an essential facility they are at least partially focused on Google and its various search properties. Google is frequently the target for “essentialist” critics who argue, among other things, that Google’s prioritization of its own properties in its own search results violates antitrust rules. The story goes that Google search is so valuable that when Google publishes its own shopping results ahead of its various competitors, it is engaging in anticompetitive conduct. But this is a terribly myopic view of what the choices are for search services because, as Geoffrey Manne has so ably noted before, “competitors denied access to the top few search results at Google’s site are still able to advertise their existence and attract users through a wide range of other advertising outlets[.]”

Moreover, as more and more users migrate to specialized apps on their mobile devices for a variety of content, Google’s desktop search becomes just one choice among many for finding information. All of this leaves to one side, of course, the fact that for some categories, Google has incredibly stiff competition.

Thus it is that

to the extent that inclusion in Google search results is about “Stiglerian” search-cost reduction for websites (and it can hardly be anything else), the range of alternate facilities for this function is nearly limitless.

The troubling thing here is that, given the breezy analysis of the Order and the CEA brief, I don’t think the White House is really considering the long-term legal and economic implications of its command; the Order appears to be much more about political support for favored agency actions already under way.

Indeed, despite the length of the CEA brief and the variety of antitrust principles recited in the Order itself, an accompanying release points to what is really going on (at least in part). The White House, along with the FCC, seems to think that the embedded streams in a cable or satellite broadcast should be considered a form of essential facility that is an indispensable component of video consumers’ choice (which is laughable given the magnitude of choice in video consumption options that consumers enjoy today).

And, to the extent that courts might apply the (controversial) essential facilities doctrine, an “indispensable requirement … is the unavailability of access to the ‘essential facilities’[.]” This is clearly not the case with much of what the CEA brief points to as examples of ostensibly laudable pro-competitive regulation.

The doctrine wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the FCC’s Open Internet Order since edge providers have access to customers over networks, even where network providers want to zero-rate, employ usage-based billing or otherwise negotiate connection fees and prioritization. And it also doesn’t apply to the set-top box kerfuffle; while third-parties aren’t able to access the video streams that make-up a cable broadcast, the market for consuming those streams is a single part of the entire video ecosystem. What really matters there is access to viewers, and the ability to provide services to consumers and compete for their business.

Yet, according to the White House, “the set-top box is the mascot” for the administration’s competition Order, because, apparently, cable boxes represent “what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere.” ( “Elsewhere” to the White House, I assume, cannot include Roku, Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other video options  that consumers can currently choose among.)

The set-top box is, according to the White House, a prime example of the problem that

[a]cross our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see.

This is, of course, nonsense. Consumers enjoy an incredible amount of low-cost, high quality goods (including video options) – far more than at any point in history.  After all:

From cable to Netflix to Roku boxes to Apple TV to Amazon FireStick, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever — and we can do so in our living rooms, on our phones and tablets, and on seat-back screens at 30,000 feet. Oddly enough, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler … agrees: “American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Thus, I suspect that the White House has its eye on a broader regulatory agenda.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently announced that it would be extending its reach in the financial services industry by changing the standard for when financial advice might give rise to a fiduciary relationship under ERISA. It seems obvious that the SEC or FINRA could have taken up the slack for any financial services regulatory issues – it’s certainly within their respective wheelhouses. But that’s not the direction the administration took, possibly because SEC and FINRA are independent agencies. Thus, the DOL – an agency with substantially less financial and consumer protection experience than either the SEC or FINRA — has expansive new authority.

And that’s where more of the language in the Order comes into focus. It directs agencies to “ensur[e] that consumers and workers have access to the information needed to make informed choices[.]” The text of the DOL rule develops for itself a basis in competition law as well:

The current proposal’s defined boundaries between fiduciary advice, education, and sales activity directed at large plans, may bring greater clarity to the IRA and plan services markets. Innovation in new advice business models, including technology-driven models, may be accelerated, and nudged away from conflicts and toward transparency, thereby promoting healthy competition in the fiduciary advice market.

Thus, it’s hard to see what the White House is doing in the Order, other than laying the groundwork for expansive authority of non-independent executive agencies under the thin guise of promoting competition. Perhaps the President believes that couching this expansion in free market terms ( i.e. that its “pro-competition”) will somehow help the initiatives go through with minimal friction. But there is nothing in the Order or the CEA brief to provide any confidence that competition will, in fact, be promoted. And in the end I have trouble seeing how this sort of regulatory adventurism does not run afoul of separation of powers issues, as well as assorted other legal challenges.

Finally, conjuring up a regulatory version of the essential facilities doctrine as a support for this expansion is simply a terrible idea — one that smacks much more of industrial policy than of sound regulatory reform or consumer protection.

On March 31, a federal judge gave the city of Boston six months to rectify the disparities between the way it treats Transportation Network Companies (“TNC”) (such as Uber and Lyft) and taxicab companies. This comes pursuant to an order by US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in a suit filed by members of the Boston taxi industry against the city and various officials. The suit is an interesting one because it reveals unusual fault lines in the ongoing struggle between taxi companies, local regulators, and the way that federal law recognizes and respects property and economic rights.

The three chief claims by the Boston taxi medallion holders are that the city had wronged them by by devaluing their medallions in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on regulatory takings, by discriminating against them in favor of TNCs under the equal protection clause (“EPC”) of the Fourteenth Amendment, and by violating Massachusetts law under a theory of promissory estoppel.

On the federal claims, the court seems to get it half right, and half wrong.  In sum, Judge Gorton seems to get the takings argument more or less correct. He notes:

The exclusivity of medallion owners’ access to the market prior to the arrival of TNCs existed by virtue of the City’s regulatory structure rather than the medallion owners’ property rights.  Medallion owners have no property interest in the enforcement of Rule 403 against others  … If a person who wishes to operate a taxicab without a medallion is prevented from doing so, it is because he or she would violate municipal regulations, not because he or she would violate medallion owners’ property rights.

Indeed. The plaintiff’s takings argument essentially amounts to a claim that the government, by virtue of creating the medallion system, is thereby disabled from ever regulating in a way that disrupts medallion owners from making a profit. Efficiency concerns, consumer safety concerns, and the like be damned! takings can be a fairly complicated body of law, but it seems highly unlikely that the plaintiff’s view is right—for one thing, a medallion is much more like a business license subject to health and safety considerations than it is like a property right— and Judge Gorton handily disposes of the plaintiff’s claims.

However, on the EPC analysis Judge Morton’s analysis goes off the rails. He first properly notes that, as an economic rights claim, the EPC analysis is controlled by rational basis review. As the legally trained reader will already know,  “[r]ational basis review simply requires that there be “any reasonably conceivable set of facts justifying the disparate treatment.”

According to the Supreme Court:

[B]ecause we never require a legislature to articulate its reasons for enacting a statute, it is entirely irrelevant for constitutional purposes whether the conceived reason for the challenged distinction actually motivated the legislature.

And as Clark Neily, a constitutional litigator from the Institute for Justice, has noted: “Not only is the government invited to dream up entirely post hoc rationalizations for challenged legislation, it has “no obligation to produce evidence” in support of those rationalizations either.” (citing Heller v. Doe).

In short, rational basis review is an exceedingly easy burden for the government to meet when one of its regulations is challenged.

In this case, Boston offered a number of reasons that it decided to regulate TNCs and taxi companies differently, including a very strong one that doing so “enhances the city’s interest in increasing the availability and accessibility of cost-effective transportation[.]” Nonetheless, Judge Morton disagreed, holding that

[T]he Court finds persuasive plaintiffs’ argument that many of the obvious differences between taxis from TNCs, such as the kind of vehicle used and the fact that taxicabs must be clearly labeled, are caused by the City’s application of the requirements of Rule 403 to taxi operators but not to TNCs.  The City may not treat the two groups unequally and then argue that the results of that unequal treatment render the two groups dissimilarly situated and, consequently, not subject to equal protection analysis.  Such circular logic is unavailing.

The judge pegged his opinion to the fact that Rule 403 — which regulates “hackney carriages” — defines the subject of its regulations as “used or designed to be used for the conveyance of persons for hire from place to place within the city of Boston.” Both TNCs and taxi cabs arguably fit into this definition, thus for Judge Morton, despite the fact that the city offered at least two policy goals for its differential regulations, “[n]either objective is … rationally related to any distinction between taxi operators and TNCs.”

This just has to be wrong under current federal law. As I noted above, rational basis review requires “any reasonably conceivable set of facts”  and, even though the city created the distinctions itself through its regulations, the reasons it states for doing so — including increasing availability of transportation for its citizens — are definitely rationally related to its distinction between the two types of consumer carriers. Sure, Rule 403 provides a scope of regulatory power for the city that sweeps in both TNCs and taxicabs, but within that regulatory scope the City then has the power to “rationally” assign rules as it sees fit (unless someone comes up with a fundamental right here that is more important than economic interests, of course).

I get it, rational basis review of economic regulations is frustrating and often just provides a free pass to protectionist regulators. Nevertheless, it is the law, and I think that Judge Morton got the equal protection claim wrong.

The real lesson here? Don’t get into bed with government and expect a virtual monopoly to protect you indefinitely. It’s no secret that federal law provides scant little protection for economic liberty, so when the government decides it wants to do something that harms the industry that it was previously cozy with it’s just too bad. Maybe there is a future world in which courts will recognize the right to earn a living is as deeply important as the right to speak or practice your religion or vote — but that is not the world we live in today.

Moreover, when an industry depends upon the government to explicitly protect it from competitors it is the worst kind of cronyism, and, at least in this case, represents an economic mindset that is badly aging. As upstart competitors like Uber and Lyft discover new ways to deploy cost-effective (and generally just more effective) technology to manage different industries, the fig leaf of legitimate government intervention is stripped away and revealed for what it often is: protectionism.

So to some extent, I sympathize with  Judge Gorton’s instinct in the equal protection claim: it should be the case that the government is not allowed to pick winners and losers in the economy based on its own taking of the political temperature. But the larger lesson is the opposite of the plaintiff’s intention, in my opinion. The government should roll back the regulations that created the medallion industry in the first place, and find a way to strike a politically feasible deal that eases the taxi companies out of their well-painted corner. We need more competition and more service in pursuit of consumer choice, and we need much less industry control guided in a top-down manner by state fiat.