Archives For Aereo

My colleague, Neil Turkewitz, begins his fine post for Fair Use Week (read: crashing Fair Use Week) by noting that

Many of the organizations celebrating fair use would have you believe, because it suits their analysis, that copyright protection and the public interest are diametrically opposed. This is merely a rhetorical device, and is a complete fallacy.

If I weren’t a recovering law professor, I would just end there: that about sums it up, and “the rest is commentary,” as they say. Alas….  

All else equal, creators would like as many people to license their works as possible; there’s no inherent incompatibility between “incentives and access” (which is just another version of the fallacious “copyright protection versus the public interest” trope). Everybody wants as much access as possible. Sure, consumers want to pay as little as possible for it, and creators want to be paid as much as possible. That’s a conflict, and at the margin it can seem like a conflict between access and incentives. But it’s not a fundamental, philosophical, and irreconcilable difference — it’s the last 15 minutes of negotiation before the contract is signed.

Reframing what amounts to a fundamental agreement into a pitched battle for society’s soul is indeed a purely rhetorical device — and a mendacious one, at that.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there are still disputes on the margin, as I said. But it helps to know what they’re really about, and why they are so far from the fanciful debates the copyright scolds wish we were having.

First, price is, in fact, a big deal. For the creative industries it can be the difference between, say, making one movie or a hundred, and for artists is can be the difference between earning a livelihood writing songs or packing it in for a desk job.

But despite their occasional lip service to the existence of trade-offs, many “fair-users” see price — i.e., licensing agreements — as nothing less than a threat to social welfare. After all, the logic runs, if copies can be made at (essentially) zero marginal cost, a positive price is just extortion. They say, “more access!,” but they don’t mean, “more access at an agreed-upon price;” they mean “zero-price access, and nothing less.” These aren’t the same thing, and when “fair use” is a stand-in for “zero-price use,” fair-users moving the goalposts — and being disingenuous about it.

The other, related problem, of course, is piracy. Sometimes rightsholders’ objections to the expansion of fair use are about limiting access. But typically that’s true only where fine-tuned contracting isn’t feasible, and where the only realistic choice they’re given is between no access for some people, and pervasive (and often unstoppable) piracy. There are any number of instances where rightsholders have no realistic prospect of efficiently negotiating licensing terms and receiving compensation, and would welcome greater access to their works even without a license — as long as the result isn’t also (or only) excessive piracy. The key thing is that, in such cases, opposition to fair use isn’t opposition to reasonable access, even free access. It’s opposition to piracy.

Time-shifting with VCRs and space-shifting with portable mp3 players (to take two contentious historical examples) fall into this category (even if they are held up — as they often are — by the fair-users as totems of their fanciful battle ). At least at the time of the Sony and Diamond Rio cases, when there was really no feasible way to enforce licenses or charge differential prices for such uses, the choice rightsholders faced was effectively all-or-nothing, and they had to pick one. I’m pretty sure, all else equal, they would have supported such uses, even without licenses and differential compensation — except that the piracy risk was so significant that it swamped the likely benefits, tilting the scale toward “nothing” instead of “all.”

Again, the reality is that creators and rightsholders were confronted with a choice between two imperfect options; neither was likely “right,” and they went with the lesser evil. But one can’t infer from that constrained decision an inherent antipathy to fair use. Sadly, such decisions have to be made in the real world, not law reviews and EFF blog posts. As economists Benjamin Klein, Andres Lerner and Kevin Murphy put it regarding the Diamond Rio case:

[R]ather than representing an attempt by copyright-holders to increase their profits by controlling legally established “fair uses,”… the obvious record-company motivation is to reduce the illegal piracy that is encouraged by the technology. Eliminating a “fair use” [more accurately, “opposing an expansion of fair use” -ed.] is not a benefit to the record companies; it is an unfortunate cost they have to bear to solve the much larger problem of infringing uses. The record companies face competitive pressure to avoid these costs by developing technologies that distinguish infringing from non-infringing copying.

This last point is important, too. Fair-users don’t like technological protection measures, either, even if they actually facilitate licensing and broader access to copyrighted content. But that really just helps to reveal the poverty of their position. They should welcome technology that expands access, even if it also means that it enables rightsholders to fine-tune their licenses and charge a positive price. Put differently: Why do they hate Spotify!?

I’m just hazarding a guess here, but I suspect that the antipathy to technological solutions goes well beyond the short-term limits on some current use of content that copyright minimalists think shouldn’t be limited. If technology, instead of fair use, is truly determinative of the extent of zero-price access, then their ability to seriously influence (read: rein in) the scope of copyright is diminished. Fair use is amorphous. They can bring cases, they can lobby Congress, they can pen strongly worded blog posts, and they can stage protests. But they can’t do much to stop technological progress. Of course, technology does at least as much to limit the enforceability of licenses and create new situations where zero-price access is the norm. But still, R&D is a lot harder than PR.

What’s more, if technology were truly determinative, it would frequently mean that former fair uses could become infringing at some point (or vice versa, of course). Frankly, there’s no reason for time-shifting of TV content to continue to be considered a fair use today. We now have the technology to both enable time shifting and to efficiently license content for the purpose, charge a differential price for it, and enforce the terms. In fact, all of that is so pervasive today that most users do pay for time-shifting technologies, under license terms that presumably define the scope of their right to do so; they just may not have read the contract. Where time-shifting as a fair use rears its ugly head today is in debates over new, infringing technology where, in truth, the fair use argument is really a malleable pretext to advocate for a restriction on the scope of copyright (e.g., Aereo).

In any case, as the success of business models like Spotify and Netflix (to say nothing of Comcast’s X1 interface and new Xfinity Stream app) attest, technology has enabled users to legitimately engage in what was once conceivable seemingly only under fair use. Yes, at a price — one that millions of people are willing to pay. It is surely the case that rightsholders’ licensing of technologies like these have made content more accessible, to more people, and with higher-quality service, than a regime of expansive unlicensed use could ever have done.

At the same time, let’s not forget that, often, even when they could efficiently distribute content only at a positive price, creators offer up scads of content for free, in myriad ways. Sure, the objective is to maximize revenue overall by increasing exposure, price discriminating, or enhancing the quality of paid-for content in some way — but so what? More content is more content, and easier access is easier access. All of that uncompensated distribution isn’t rightsholders nodding toward the copyright scolds’ arguments; it’s perfectly consistent with licensing. Obviously, the vast majority of music, for example, is listened-to subject to license agreements, not because of fair use exceptions or rightsholders’ largesse.

For the vast majority of creators, users and uses, licensed access works, and gets us massive amounts of content and near ubiquitous access. The fair use disputes we do have aren’t really about ensuring broad access; that’s already happening. Rather, those disputes are either niggling over the relatively few ambiguous margins on the one hand, or, on the other, fighting the fair-users’ manufactured, existential fight over whether copyright exceptions will subsume the rule. The former is to be expected: Copyright boundaries will always be imperfect, and courts will always be asked to make the close calls. The latter, however, is simply a drain on resources that could be used to create more content, improve its quality, distribute it more broadly, or lower prices.

Copyright law has always been, and always will be, operating in the shadow of technology — technology both for distribution and novel uses, as well as for pirating content. The irony is that, as digital distribution expands, it has dramatically increased the risk of piracy, even as copyright minimalists argue that the low costs of digital access justify a more expansive interpretation of fair use — which would, in turn, further increase the risk of piracy.

Creators’ opposition to this expansion has nothing to do with opposition to broad access to content, and everything to do with ensuring that piracy doesn’t overwhelm their ability to get paid, and to produce content in the first place.

Even were fair use to somehow disappear tomorrow, there would be more and higher-quality content, available to more people in more places, than ever before. But creators have no interest in seeing fair use disappear. What they do have is an interest in is licensing their content as broadly as possible when doing so is efficient, and in minimizing piracy. Sometimes legitimate fair-use questions get caught in the middle. We could and should have a reasonable debate over the precise contours of fair use in such cases. But the false dichotomy of creators against users makes that extremely difficult. Until the disingenuous rhetoric is clawed back, we’re stuck with needless fights that don’t benefit either users or creators — although they do benefit the policy scolds, academics, wonks and businesses that foment them.

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

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

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

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

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

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

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

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

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court Adopts (Some of) Our Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aereo Is Liable for Copyright Infringement Under the Volitional Conduct Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court’s Holding Doesn’t Imperil Cloud Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance, as CDT notes:

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

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

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

The Ability to Contract is Key

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

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

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

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

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

The Cablevision Decision Doesn’t Require a Holding for Aereo

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

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

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

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

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

Fair Use Won’t Save Aereo

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

Conclusion

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