In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a 6-3 decision that Aereo’s Internet streaming service engages in unauthorized public performances of broadcast television programs in violation of the Copyright Act, reversing the Second Circuit’s decision in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. (No. 13-461).
In ruling against Aereo, the Court sought to limit its decision to Aereo’s service—which the Court considered to be “equivalent” to that of a traditional cable company—and noted that it was not addressing the legality of cloud storage lockers, remote-storage DVRs and other emerging technologies. But the Court’s interpretation of the public performance right in the context of Aereo’s technology will nevertheless influence future decisions on whether the transmission of content using other technology constitutes copyright infringement.
Aereo provides broadcast television streaming and recording services to its subscribers, who can watch selected programing on various Internet-connected devices, including smart televisions, computers, mobile phones and tablets. Aereo provides its service through individual, “dime-sized” antennas that pick up local television broadcast signals and transmit those signals to an Aereo server where individual copies of programs embedded in such signals are created and saved to the directories of those subscribers who want to view such programs. A subscriber can then watch the selected program nearly live (subject to a brief time delay from the recording) or later from the recording. No two users share the same antenna at the same time, nor do any users share access to the same stored copy of a program.
In 2012, various broadcasting companies sued Aereo for copyright infringement in the Southern District of New York, claiming, among other things, that Aereo’s transmission of the plaintiffs’ copyrighted content to Aereo’s subscribers violated the copyright owners’ exclusive right to publicly perform those works. That public performance right, codified in the 1976 Copyright Act, includes (1) any performance at a place open to the public or any gathering with a substantial number of people outside the “normal circle of family and social acquaintances,” and (2) the transmission of a performance to the public, whether or not those members of the public receive it in the same location and at the same time. This latter provision, commonly referred to as the “Transmit Clause,” was added to the Copyright Act by Congress in part to overturn earlier Supreme Court decisions that had allowed cable companies to retransmit broadcast television signals without compensating copyright owners.
The district court denied the broadcast companies’ preliminary injunction requests, finding that, based on Second Circuit precedent, Aereo’s transmissions were unlikely to constitute public performances. The Second Circuit affirmed the decision, relying on that court’s earlier decision in Cartoon Network LP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121 (2d Cir. 2008) (“Cablevision”), which found that a cable company’s remote-storage DVR system did not run afoul of the public performance right because each transmission emanated from a unique copy of a program that was sent only to an individual user. The Second Circuit held that Aereo does not engage in public performances because, as in Cablevision, Aereo’s system makes unique copies of every recording, and each transmission of a program to a customer is generated from that customer’s unique copy.
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