Mass Law Blog

Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em … (Aereo)

by | Jul 22, 2014

It’s difficult to read Aereo’s section of Aereo and ABC’s July 9, 2014 joint letter to the U.S. District Court without experiencing a good dose of disbelief.

Until the Supreme Court issued its decision in ABC v. Aereo on June 25, 2014 (earlier blog post on that decision), Aereo insisted that it was not a cable company entitled to a compulsory license under Section 111 of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. section 111(c)). Aereo denied it was a cable system in filings with the district court and in its brief to the Supreme Court. At oral argument Justice Sotomayer questioned whether Aereo was a cable company, and Aereo’s attorney responded –

Now, we are not a cable service. The reason we’re not a cable service is because cable takes all signals and pushes them down. There’s a head in. It’s defined by statute. There’s a very particularized regulatory structure that deals with taking a lot of content and pushing it down to consumers. Aereo is an equipment provider.

However, after the Supreme Court decision Aereo tried to change its stripes. In the July 9th letter it states:

The Supreme Court has now ruled that “having considered the details of Aereo’s practices, we find them highly similar to those of the CATV systems in Fortnightly and Teleprompter. And those are activities that the 1976 amendments sought to bring within the scope of the Copyright Act. … Accordingly, Aereo is entitled to a compulsory license under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 111. And because Aereo is entitled to a license under Section 111, the transmissions Plaintiffs have sought to enjoin do not infringe Plaintiffs’ rights under the Copyright Act.

Aereo has been careful to follow the law, and the Supreme Court has announced a new and different rule governing Aereo’s operations last week. Under the Second Circuit’s precedents, Aereo was a provider of technology and equipment with respect to the near-live transmissions at issue in the preliminary injunction appeal. After the Supreme Court’s decision, Aereo is a cable system with respect to those transmissions. . . .

The Supreme Court’s holding that Aereo is a cable system under the Copyright Act is significant because, as a cable system, Aereo is now entitled to the benefits of the copyright statutory license pursuant to the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 111(c). Aereo is proceeding to file the necessary statements of account and royalty fees. By holding that Aereo is a cable system, the Supreme Court has overruled WPIX, Inc. v. ivi, Inc., 691 F.3d 275, 279 (2d Cir. 2012) to the extent it might apply to Aereo … .

The Supreme Court did not hold that Aereo is a cable system. “Highly similar,” for purposes of applying the public performance provision, yes. A cable system, no. Nor, as Aereo asserted in its letter to the court, did the Supreme Court “overrule” WPIX, Inc. v. ivi, Inc., 691 F.3d 275 (2d Cir. 2012), which held that “Congress did not … intend for § 111’s compulsory license to extend to Internet transmissions.”

It didn’t take long for the Copyright Office to point this out to Aereo. After the Supreme Court decision Aereo submitted royalty and filing fees of approximately $5,000 (about 1% of revenue) to the Copyright Office. In a July 16, 2014 letter the Copyright Office’s General Counsel, citing WPIX v. ivi, advised Aereo that “in the view of the Copyright Office, internet retransmissions of broadcast television fall outside the scope of the Section 111 license.”

To make matters worse (for Aereo), Aereo faces a double hurdle: under the federal Communications Act Aereo must negotiate and obtain “retransmission consent” from broadcasters, a process which, for reasons Jeff John Roberts explains on Gigaom, puts Aereo in an economically hopeless position.

Clearly, the decision-makers at Aereo are not fans of Kenny Rogers, or they would know it’s time to either walk away or to run.

It would be great to receive low-cost Internet access to broadcast television, but despite Aereo’s attempts to reinvent itself following the Supreme Court decision holding it to be a copyright infringer, it is extremely unlikely that service will come from Aereo.