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.

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.

Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank: Setting the abstract idea goalposts

This week, the Court heard oral arguments in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. There are lots of writeups, and I, of course, prefer the one that quotes me. For that reason, I’m going to skip a lot of the detail. The gist of the case is that the Supreme Court must again decide whether patent claims are eligible subject matter – that is, whether the claims should be tested on their merits, or thrown out because we just don’t patent that sort of thing.

The last time around, in Bilski v. Kappos, the Court said that abstract ideas were not patentable, and that a claim to hedging was an abstract idea. That’s all well and good, until the next claim comes around, and the next claim, and the next claim. In Mayo v. Prometheus, the court added a little meat to the bones, saying that once you have your “natural law,” the inventor has to add some non-conventional steps in addition to the natural law.

That’s all well and good, except: 1) for reasons I can’t understand, lower courts aren’t tying the Prometheus conventional steps idea to abstract ideas systematically; 2) the conventional steps view imports 102 and 103, but without any of the rigor those sections require; and 3) lower courts and litigants can’t agree on what the base “idea” or “law” is, to which we might add steps. More on that later. Justice Breyer, at oral arguments in Alice, made clear that the Court was providing a “shell” in prior cases and that he was hopeful that the lower courts and litigants would figure it out.

How wrong he was. As I’ve written several times over the past seven years, since before subject matter challenges were en vogue, this is a morass that cannot be solved in a principled way. I think the best shot we had was our argument in Life after Bilski that we should be looking for claim overbreadth, and for ideas untethered from any application. The Court did not adopt this approach, though there is hope it will reconsider in this case.

But, despite my misgivings, my viewpoint that we should just abandon all attempts to limit patentable subject matter beyond the statute has been expressly rejected by the Court. In short, the Court really, really wants 101 to do something, and it is now struggling with what and how.

This leads to my view of how the Court should rule. Despite everyone who knows anything about patents (including me) thinking the Court is going to invalidate some of the claims of this patent, my view is that the Court must affirm patentability of the Alice Corp. claims. This doesn’t mean I think it’s a good patent.

Why do I argue this? Because we need goalposts. As long as the Court continues to hold patents invalid, we will see uncertainty. This is directly parallel to the Diehr case of 1981. Prior to that time, there was great uncertainty about what could be patented, and it did not end until Diehr. That uncertainty led to under-applications for patents, which led to less prior art, which made it harder to invalidate weak patents of the 1990s, the very same patents that give us so much trouble now.

My view is that Alice Corp. can be a new floor, that patent applications can be rejected on their merits but also become part of the public domain to wipe out other patent applications on weak inventions of the future. We need goalposts.

As for the actual subject matter of the patent, saying it is not an abstract idea is not a stretch. The broadest claim at issue is a system configured for settling multiparty transactions on a computer, getting information from a “device” and “generating instructions.” It’s written fancily, but it’s a pretty simple claim. Public Knowledge claims it can be implemented in 7 lines of Basic code. This is a bit of an exaggeration that takes some liberties with claim construction.

But that’s the point. First, we should probably construe what a claim covers before deciding that it’s an abstract idea. Oral argument at Alice, and general discussion in this area pays too little attention to the actual limitations of the patent claims. Second, the claims here include a device, a computer, a storage unit, etc. This is an application of how to do escrow, and not even the general idea of escrow, but a specific type of intermediated escrow. Yes, I understand that “Do idea x on a computer” is a claim we worry about, but we have cases like Dann v. Johnston that deal with that on obviousness, and if it wasn’t obvious to “Do idea x on a computer” then that might be the type of claim we want. Bonus trivia: cert. was granted in Dann on a subject matter challenge as well, and the court declined to rule on it, instead ruling only on the obviousness point.

Third, the patent has been attacked as simple and not doing anything earth shattering, but CLS Bank itself claims that this idea was a long time coming, some 20 years. If it could really be implemented with 7 lines of code, why didn’t CLS Bank just do it? Why did it take a couple years even after Alice sought patent protection to implement such an “abstract idea” that everyone claims to have known was necessary? Then again, maybe it’s just a simple invention and Alice was merely the first to write it down when computers and networks got faster. But these are all questions about obviousness – questions that we should be asking and that may well render the patent invalid. But just because we have a gut feel that something might be obvious, that doesn’t mean we should use hindsight many, many years after the patent filing to call it an abstract idea.

Admittedly, this is a broad claim. It might even satisfy our definition of “overly broad” from Life After Bilski and the factors of abstract idea that we identify there. But the Court did not adopt our framework. I worry that more harm than good will come of further nebulous definitions of abstract ideas, which will come until the Court affirms a borderline claim as good enough. Everyone watching this case, whether they favor broad patenting or limited patenting, thinks the lack of rule clarity is a problem. The Court should use this case to set the lowest bar for non-abstractness – it is the only way left to get some clarity.

The Economist Notes that Patents Do Not Equal Innovation

The Economist had a recent piece about software patents and said, GASP “[P]atent issuance is a poor measure of innovation.” Amen. But wait! Don’t order yet! There’s more! “Patenting is strictly a metric of invention. Innovation is such a vastly different endeavour—in terms of investment, time and the human resources required—as to be virtually unrelated to invention.” (The applause and boos commence simultaneously).

Innovation is meaningless as well, but the first step is to admit the problem. There may be some relationship between patents and incentives to create certain things. But not all patents or all creations show a correlation to a general claim that patents equal innovation or whether innovation will occur without patents. Innovation as “Hey that rally changed the way we do things” probably can’t be identified until much after the event. Innovation as “Hey we made tons and tons of bitcoin, oh we mean cash” is easier to spot but a different metric as far as policy should be concerned. The better disposable razor or even iPhone is incremental while also important. Parsng the differences amongst what types of innovation is well-beyond a blog post. But should folks want to hurt their head and wear out their hands, please write at length. I will look forward to reading what you find.

Yep, There It Is, Amazon Embraces 3D Printing

In the mists of yore (i.e., December 2, 2013), I wrote that Amazon seems well-placed to embrace 3D printing to cut labor costs and offer same-day and/or back-catalog things, as in physical goods; now Amazon has. Similar to Amazon’s move of buying one of the major on-demand publishers of books, it has partnered with 3DLT which has been called thethe first store for 3D products. Amazon has also opened a 3D printing store-front. WaPo’s Dominic Basulto gets the point that Gerard and I have been making in our paper Patents Meet Napster, and I keep seeing in so many areas of technology. Basulto notes that just in time retail could take on a new meaning. As he puts it:

[T]he future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

Yep. That’s about right. And as Gerard and I argue, this shift will highlight questions about patents and also trademarks. Folks may want to know that the files and the materials for the things they print are safe and trust-worthy. Enter brands and enter Amazon (and eBay to be fair) which have been brilliant at setting up online trust-systems so that we can do business with random company in random place and have a high probability that the deal will occur, be as promised, and not leak our credit cards (Amazon does this by not sharing your credit card with third parties last I checked).

Now all we need is nano-goo-fueled replic– er uh, excuse me, 3D printers — and the Diamond Age will be here.

3D Printing, Maybe It Is Magic

More and more 3D printing seems like it’s magic. In Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things Gerard and I explain that it is not quite magic yet. And our argument is that the law can perhaps make sure the technology has a chance to reach a magical stage. That said each day we wrote a new report made me wonder at how quickly the technology is moving.

Forbes reports that a jewelry company is using 3D printing and Google Earth to print $250,000 jewelry. A couple weeks ago UC Hastings put on a Symposium to Illuminate Legal Issues Posed by 3D Printing Technology. I spoke and had a great time meeting more folks interested in the technology and in seeing it thrive. Mark Lemley gave the key note and is poking at many ideas that resonate with me and my work. He spoke about how technology is changing scarcity and will affect labor. The Forbes piece captures the shift:

Shoppers can completely customize their own design and have the finished product delivered in 3 or 4 days. “We’ve had a great deal of difficulty competing with cheap labor overseas,” said Bakhash, whose father Charlie founded American Pearl in New York’s diamond district in 1950.

“Now, with the advent of our platform, we’re no longer taking off-the-shelf parts and welding. There’s no jeweler at a bench with a blowtorch. The cost and labor savings is phenomenal. And we’re empowering consumers to make jewelry in real-time.”

The process starts on AmericanPearl.com, or its sister site AmericanDiamondShop.com, where a customer is able to create a unique piece, whether a $400 pair of earrings or a necklace that goes for six figures.

The Maker movement and the new wave of customized things is fascinating and exciting. But it may be that the hand-crafted, Etsy moment will be short-lived and the automated, design and print world will take over. I think that the result will be a hybrid. Folks will use the tech to produce more and to make customized goods for less cost. Some labor will be eliminated. Some labor such as design will be valuable. But just like the shifts in copyright, we will see strange and large shifts in who makes money and how it is made. Then again not all of us can be poets and also eat. More on that in another post.