Aereo, Copyright, Technological neutrality, function v. effect

American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., is a case scheduled for oral argument before the Supreme Court next month. The case gives us an interesting opportunity to reassess the oft-stated aim that copyright law should be technologically neutral.

Aereo offers consumers the ability to watch live free-to-air broadcast television via the Internet with the ability to pause, rewind and fast-forward programming. Aereo provides this service by receiving free-to-air broadcast television on a vast array of micro-antennae, each antenna being dedicated to an individual subscriber. The signals so received are reduced to individual copies of individual programs. These copies are then transmitted to individual subscribers, either virtually live or at some later time. See WNET, THIRTEEN v. Aereo, Inc., 712 F. 3d 676, 680-683 (2d Cir. 2013).

If technological neutrality is a question of the effect of a given technology, then Aereo is, in effect, the same as retransmission system and thus a public performance. But if technologically neutrality is a question of function, then Aereo is a remote DVR + one-to-one performances. It is thus a copying system and not the originator of public performances.

Judge Chin’s dissenting opinion takes an effect-based perspective and argues that regardless of how the Aereo system actually works:

Aereo’s “technology platform” is, however, a sham. The system … is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law.

The Copyright Act aims for neutrality in that the public performance right in 17 U.S.C. § 106(4) is defined to include the right “to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance… to the public, by means of any device or process.” Id. § 101. But the problem with Chin’s dissent is that the “by means of any device or process” language does not mean that non-public transmissions are rendered into public transmissions simply because they have the same effect as technology we recognize as implicating the public performance right.

An effect-based vision of technological neutrality flatly contradicts the basic structure of rights under the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act defines the rights of copyright owners with respect to six particular acts–thus, for example, reproducing a copyrighted novel without permission or justification is infringement, reading a copyrighted novel is not. 17 U.S.C. §106(1)-(6).

There are many reasons why we should not disregard the technical details of a system like Aereo’s, but perhaps the most important one is simply that transforming effects into functions is not necessary. Aereo has indeed designed its system to avoid making public performances, but it has done this by adding thousands of individual copies. We should not feel the need to label every performance from a copy as a public performance given that the copyright owner also has an exclusive right to reproduce the work in copies.

This post is a reaction to Brad Greenberg’s presentation on the issue of technological neutrality in copyright at the Fourth Internet Law Scholars Work-in-Progress Symposium.