The Supreme Court is addressing the wrong question in #Aereo.

I will be speaking about the ongoing  Aereo litigation tomorrow at the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property’s Annual Symposium.

On April 22nd the Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether a company “publicly performs” a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet. My view is that this case should not be about public performance. The court in Cablevision got that one right, no other reading of the Copyright Act makes sense.

The Supreme Court should hold that a single aerial (or N aerials) that copy and transmit at an N:N ratio is not 1 performance to N people, it is N performances to N people and thus not “public”.

This does not mean Aereo is off the hook. Cablevision’s device is consistent with the Supreme Court’s Sony Betamax decision from 1984: copying made possible by a remote-dvr is  fair use. However, to the extent the Aereo system is designed to offer what is, in effect, live or almost live ‘rebroadcast’ beyond the authorized reception range of the original broadcast it may not be fair use. This is an open question, but the Supreme Court can’t decide it because it has not been briefed on the issue.

Whether a company “publicly performs” a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast is not the right question. Critics of Cablevision seem to think that if there is no public performance right for an R-DVR, then there is no tolling point at which creators get paid. But avoiding public performance does not avoid the initial broadcast or copying.

I have some slides that go into this in a bit more detail. Comments welcome.