The Three Pictures of Aereo

As many who follow such things know, ABC v. Aereo was argued today before the Supreme Court. My writeup on it last year provides some background about the case and my views at the time (which have changed a bit since I have more closely studied the technology, the case law, and the statute). In this post, I want to discuss the three pictures of Aereo – the big picture, the little picture, and the side picture.

The Big Picture

The basic gist of this case is this: Aereo grabs programming off the airwaves – programming that anyone with an antenna in their home can grab. Aereo then sends this content to servers – sort of remote DVRs. From those servers, the content is then sent to users over the internet. (There is some transcoding and compressing that occurs, but most are ignoring this feature).

It turns out that a court passed judgment on a similar system a few years ago in the Cablevision case. There, the court held that a remote DVR was not a public performance even though it transmitted shows from the remote DVR to subscribers. The basis for the ruling was eminently reasonable: the user decides what to record, what to watch, when to watch, and such decisions are separate from other users. As such, the transmission from the DVR to the user is a private performance, no different than if the DVR were in the user’s own home attached to the television.

There is one primary difference between Cablevision and Aereo. Cablevision grabs the signals off the air with one (or a few) big antennas. Aereo grabs the signals off the air with thousands of tiny, dime-size antennas. Aereo assigns one to each user for each channel watched or recorded. This difference becomes important, but only in the little picture.

Indeed, this difference was irrelevant to the circuit court that ruled in favor of Aereo. That court said Aereo is no different from Cablevision, and as a result, the performance is private.

And there lies the angst. At oral argument today, several justices struggled with what might happen if the circuit court is reversed. Will all cloud computing be at risk because it is considered public? That’s a scary thought, and what I call the big picture of Aereo.

I think the big picture is mostly a sideshow. Justice Kagan asked the best, most pointed questions about whether a storage locker might be publicly performing if people upload their own content and then share it with others. The answer, of course, is that it depends on how widely and with whom the content is shared (and whether it is shared for viewing or downloading, since only viewing would be a performance). After all, YouTube is simply a storage locker with worldwide shared viewing – and no one doubts that YouTube publicly performs. Further, we have safe harbors to protect such services that perform content coming from their users.

So, then why is the big picture a sideshow? Because the Court is actively thinking about it, and will work hard to find a way to rule without harming cloud services.

This leads to the little picture.

The Little Picture

It turns out that all of the hand-wringing about the cloud is caused by the Second Circuit’s fixation on the wrong part of the transmission chain.

Aereo system
Aereo system

Consider the system above. All of the concern appears to be from the cloud DVR to the viewing device. But, as Cablevision makes clear, it doesn’t make a difference where the DVR is. You can put it in the user’s home, or push it back the pipeline to the provider, and the result should be the same. Indeed, the same is true for Aereo, and for Dropbox, and iCloud, and so on. So long as there is one to one correspondence and control between the DVR storage and the viewer, the performance is private. This is why YouTube, Roku, and shared lockers might be public performances – not due to the location, but due to the connections between users and the storage.

If the DVR is private, then, what should we be looking at? The other part of the system above: the re-transmission (a “secondary transmission” in the words of 17 USC 111) from the antenna to the DVR. And it doesn’t matter how long or short that cable is – whether the transmission is from the antenna to the DVR at the user’s home or to the DVR at the provider’s facility, the result is the same. The transmission is to many DVRs, not from one DVR to one user.

This is where, unlike the treatment by the Second Circuit, the individual antennas become relevant. Aereo claims that because the user controls a unique dime-size antenna, that re-transmission is also private – it is still one to one. For that reason, Aereo argues, it is not publicly performing, where Cablevision is (though Cablevision pays a licensing fee).

And that question, I submit, is little picture. It is a small, non-earthshattering, non-economy-harming statutory interpretation issue: do multiple antennas constitute a secondary transmission/public performance or not? I think so, based on my reading of the statute. Section 111 makes very clear that “secondary transmissions” are considered public, and the definition of such transmissions is not limited to a single antenna: the signal is being grabbed and sent to many users by Aereo, not by the users themselves with user equipement.  Aereo claims that its antennas are like a user running an antenna at home-essentially a rental- the antennas are not really leased. They are reused by others when not in use (unlike stored shows on the DVR), they are maintained by Aereo, they only feed Aereo equipment, and they are controlled by Aereo at the behest of an IP packet received over the internet (rather than a user owned device that actually tunes to a frequency).

Of course, others (and the Court) might disagree with me, but the ruling will not bring down the cloud. A secondary transmission is defined as a simultaneous retransmission of a primary transmission. There is no primary transmission that is simultaneously retransmitted in most cloud applications. It’s just not the same thing, nor should it be treated as such. And, perhaps surprisingly, the complexity of the copyright statute actually considered and handled this issue.

Side Picture

This brings us to the side picture, which many academics and media outlets have discussed, but has generally been left out of judicial discussion: the business of broadcasting is changing, and this case is one of many to come that will test broadcasters, service providers, and consumers in how television entertainment will be delivered. Aereo is a piece of a puzzle that allows people to enjoy live shows while streaming serial shows on services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. The sum total of those services cost less than cable due to unbundling.

But even if Aereo wins, then broadcasters might change their behavior to avoid the harms of Aereo. They might stop broadcasting, they might move more live television to cable (like ESPN and NFL Network showing more pro football), they might offer competitive services, or they might offer free streaming to cable customers (some already do). Thus, earlier today, I boldly argued that this case would not be a big deal – that the parties would adapt to any ruling or lobby Congress.

Here’s what I said in my blog post last year:

I’m not sure the Aereo ruling [allowing Aereo] is the right one in the long run.  One of the thorny issues with broadcast television is range. Broadcasters in different markets are not supposed to overlap. Ordinarily, this is no issue because radio waves only travel so far.  When a provider sends the broadcast by other means, however, overlap is possible, and the provider keeps the overlap from happening. DirecTV, for example, only allows a broadcast package based on location.

Aereo is not so limited, however. Presumably, one can record broadcast shows from every market. Why should this matter? Imagine the Aereo “Sunday Ticket” package, whereby Aereo records local NFL games from every market and allows subscribers to stream them. Presumably this is completely legal, but something seems off about it. While Aereo’s operation seems fine for a single market, this use is a bit thornier. I’m reasonably certain that Congress will close that loophole if any service actually tries it.

My thinking is still the same today. Indeed, one of the justices asked whether Aereo could just abandon geographic restrictions if it wins. Counsel had no real answer to that question.

The problem is that Aereo is caught between a rock and a hard place. As Bruce argues, Aereo should be considered a cable system and should pay the compulsory license fee (which is relatively inexpensive – cable companies offer basic OTA channels for $12 or so a month). But prior precedent has held that internet distribution cannot be considered a cable company eligible for a statutory license. Perhaps the best solution is to revisit that rule.

2 thoughts on “The Three Pictures of Aereo

  1. Excellent, thoughtful post to go with Bruce’s excellent, thoughtful post.

    Quick reactions:

    1/ The case highlights continued pressure on what is “public” and what is “private” in copyright (and other) terms. Cloud or no cloud, that strikes me as the core conceptual and public policy problem here. And I doubt very much that anything the Court says or does will advance that ball. For all practical purposes, copyright is still living in the public/private world that we inherited from Sony v. Universal. I predict that this will remain true post-Aereo.

    2/ It is difficult for me to see any grand public policies implicated by the case. If the sky falls and broadcast TV goes away, the foundations of Western culture will not shake. Some wealthy people will become poorer, some people with industry jobs will have to find new ones, and a lot of people who can’t afford to pay for video access will have to find other ways to amuse themselves. All of that would be disruptive and in times and places, harmful. But civilization has endured through more severe transitions.

    3/ It’s really just about the money. Technology arrangements can and will be re-arranged; if nothing else, Aereo teaches in very specific terms that “code” (metaphorically) is “plastic,” and that it can be changed very quickly. Whatever happens in this case, we can be sure that the technology will continue to change. There is (still) a lot of money at stake in broadcast TV. The meaningful question is who gets the money that falls out — or that gets generated — as technology continues to change?

    4/ As someone who is sometimes too concerned with the identity and definition of “things,” it is almost endlessly amusing to me to realize that the statutory question here turns on what “is” or what “is not” a cable system.

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