A couple of weeks ago, overshadowed by the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS handed down a copyright decision that may substantially limit the ability of transmitters to transmit copyrighted broadcasts without a license to do so.
In American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, Inc., 573 US ___ (2014), Aereo is a subscription broadcasting service that sold “…to its subscribers a technologically complex service that allows them to watch television programs over the internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.” Slip Op. at 1. The technology is detailed in the case, so I do not reproduce it here; suffice it to say that through a complex series of technological events, each Aereo subscriber ends up having his or her own dedicated antenna through which copyrighted content is streamed to one computer only. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York, affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, found that this technology does not infringe the rights of the copyright holders of the shows that Aereo streams to its users because, first, Aereo does not “perform” within the meaning of the Copyright Act and, second, even if it does “perform,” it does not do so “publicly” because there is a dedicated antenna connected to only one computer, making the streaming a private showing, thus falling outside the “public” performance requirement of the Act to qualify as infringement.
SCOTUS disagrees. In a 6-3 decision delivered by Justice Breyer (the dissent comprises Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito; all others concur in the majority opinion), the Court decreed that the 1976 Copyright Act was put in place, in large part, to overturn their decision in Fortnightly Corp v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 US 390 (1968), which held that community-antenna television falls outside of the scope of the Copyright Act of 1952. Given the clear intent of Congress to make such activities fall very definitely within the scope of the Copyright Act, and given that Aereo’s activity are not substantially different from those of Fortnightly, the Court felt duty-bound to overturn the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s holding that Aereo’s activities do not infringe copyright. SCOTUS holds for the plaintiff in determining whether (a) Aereo “performs” within the meaning of the Act and (b) Aereo performs “publicly” within the meaning of the Act.
There is language in the case that indicates that this case can be read narrowly, but this case puts rebroadcasters on notice: The act of rebroadcasting is a “transmission” within the meaning of the Act, and the viewer and broadcaster “perform publicly” within the meaning of the Act.
I advise my clients that it’s always easiest, best, cheapest to get a license to use the copyrighted works of others. This case just goes to show that this advice is still good.
The oral arguments on both sides are actually interesting for those of us who like copyright matters.