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Aereo and Disruptive Innovation

by | Mar 9, 2021 | Firm News

Under copyright law, among the exclusive rights that are held by copyright holders is the right of public performance. In some cases, the copyright holder is free to negotiate any fee or royalty that it desires for public performance, or even refuse such performance outright, while in other cases, the copyright holder must accept statutorily mandated royalties. [1] Until the innovation of cable, public performance simply entailed providing a copyrighted work directly to the public (as in a movie theater or nightclub) or broadcasting it over the airwaves.

In an effort to bring cable systems within the scope of the Copyright Act, Congress amended the Copyright Act in 1976 by clarifying that to “perform” an audiovisual work meant “to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.” The “Transmit Clause” was also added, specifying that an entity performs a work publicly when it “transmits” a performance to the public, i.e., communicates the performance “by any device or process whereby images or sounds are received beyond the place from which they are sent.” These changes were necessary in the age of technology in order for copyright holders to maintain their statutory monopoly on public performance rights of their works: there are many ways to transmit a performance other than by traditional broadcast. In 1976, of course, Congress was thinking of cable delivery. The Internet was barely even conceived.

In 2012, along came a service called Aereo, launched by Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactive Corp., a $3 billion company. The idea behind Aereo’s service was simple: “an automated system consisting of routers, servers, transcoders, and dime-sized antennae” that allowed consumers to watch television programming whose signals are relayed by Aereo to its customers via the Internet. The reality is a little bit more convoluted:

Respondent Aereo, Inc., sells a service that allows its subscribers to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air. When a subscriber wants to watch a show that is currently airing, he selects the show from a menu on Aereo’s website. Aereo’s system, which consists of thousands of small antennas and other equipment housed in a centralized warehouse, responds roughly as follows: A server tunes an antenna, which is dedicated to the use of one subscriber alone, to the broadcast carrying the selected show. A transcoder translates the signals received by the antenna into data that can be transmitted over the Internet. A server saves the data in a subscriber-specific folder on Aereo’s hard drive and begins streaming the show to the subscriber’s screen once several seconds of programming have been saved. The streaming continues, a few seconds behind the over-the-air broadcast, until the subscriber has received the entire show.
Convoluted though Aereo may be, the [http://www2.bloomberglaw.com/public/desktop/document/Am_Broad_Cos_v_Aereo_Inc_No_13461_2014_BL_175778_US_June_25_2014_] Supreme Court’s decision on June 25, 2014, that Aereo’s service infringed on copyrighted programming was a no-brainer. That’s because Aereo did not simply act as equipment provider, but transmitted each particular program that a subscriber selected to watch. The dissent (written by Scalia, and joined by Thomas and Alito), believed that because transmission was triggered by the subscriber, Aereo’s transmission could not be deemed a transmission at all and viewed Aereo as akin to having a library card. (It’s a bit difficult to square that view with the actual wording and intent of the law.) The majority opinion, written by Breyer and joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan, found Aereo’s service to have an “overwhelming likeness to the cable companies targeted by the 1976 amendments,” with the only difference being that cable systems transmit programming continuously, while the Aereo system transmits them only when “a subscriber indicates that she wants to watch a program. Only at that moment, in automatic response to the subscriber’s request, does Aereo’s system activate an antenna and begin to transmit the requested program.” The majority found the distinction to be unimportant, in part because in both systems the method is invisible both to broadcasters and subscribers alike. (As a cable subscriber, you can only watch those channels to which you turn your dial. As an Aereo subscriber, you can only watch those channels you click on.)

There has been some recent fury in the press characterizing the decision as an attack on “disruptive innovation,” a currently vaunted theory that purports to understand how technological innovation really happens. See, e.g., Michael Wolff’s article in USA Today, [http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/wolff/2014/07/06/michael-wolff-aereo-concept-of-disruption/12266329/] Concept of disruption under attack, July 7, 2014. Wolff claimed that Aereo was akin to Google and suggested that opposition to it is an attack on the future. (“Clever ideas are the future. Established ones are the past. Choose your side,” Wolff says.)

However, Aereo was not doing “disruptive innovation” — and neither was Google. Google developed search engine technology that depended on aggregating information from existing websites and publications and provided the means for people to find that information. The argument that Google was infringing copyright by copying information to facilitate searches has nothing to do with the theory of disruptive innovation, which is “the selling of a cheaper, poorer-quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.” [2] Google wasn’t disrupting or cannibalizing an already existing marketplace.

It might be that Aereo offered a poorer-quality product and reached less profitable customers, but it did nothing more than re-route the information for which cable operators – which do on land what Aereo was doing online – pay license fees. Actually, the fact that the Supreme Court viewed Aereo as substantially similar to cable companies has recently given Aero’s lawyers new hope:
The high court concluded that the streaming service was so similar to cable companies, which are required to negotiate a deal if they want to carry broadcasters’ programming, that it could not simply pluck signals from the airwaves without paying. That’s significant, Aereo says, because the classification also means that it’s “now entitled’ to work out a deal — which broadcasters, in turn, must negotiate in good faith. Indeed, Aereo says, its eligibility for what’s known as a compulsory license ‘must be decided on an immediate basis or [its] survival as a company will be in jeopardy.” [3]
As for the supposedly new “attack” on “disruptive innovation,” this is mere palaver. Aereo was not innovative, but clever — actually too clever by half. For quite a few years now, services that take copyrighted content and re-distribute it without paying royalties or fees to the copyright holders have regularly been found by courts to run afoul of copyright law, regardless of how popular the service is.

It can also be said that Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp hardly fits the model for a company engaged in disruptive innovation. IAC/InterActive’s revenues exceed $3 billion per year. Founded in 1995, and traded on NASDAQ, it is very far from being a feisty startup (the standard bearer for disruptive innovation).[4] Diller’s strategy was likely a calculated risk that if he didn’t slip through a loophole, he could get big enough to bring the content providers to the table. With Aereo’s latest argument, as the case goes back to the lower court on remand, he just might succeed.
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Footnotes
[1] The reasons for statutorily mandated royalties are beyond the scope of this article, but see our post, [http://webtm.com/copyright-reform-whose-interest/] Copyright 2014: Understanding the Issues. It should also be noted that while copyright owners of audiovisual works and musical compositions do have the exclusive right to control public performance of their works, sound recording copyright holders currently have that right only for public performance via the Internet (and not via land-based radio stations). That exception may well be eliminated in the near future.
[2] This is a quote from Jill Lepore’s article, The Disruption Machine (The New Yorker, June 23, 2014), criticizing the theory of “disruptive innovation,” but her description is accurate. See http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/06/23/140623fa_fact_lepore?currentPage=all
[3] http://www.deadline.com/2014/07/aereo-says-court-decision-entitles-it-to-license-network-programming/
[4] For a thumnail sketch of IAC/InterActive, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IAC/InterActiveCorp