Recently, we wrote about a proceeding initiated by the Copyright Office to review the reporting obligations of cable and satellite television systems related to the statutory license that permits those systems to carry the programming of local television stations.  Systems must report information including revenue and subscriber information that allow royalties to be computed.  This

In a decision released this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a District Court decision (about which we wrote here) that had found that a video service provided by Aereokiller was a “cable system” as defined by Section 111 of the Copyright Act. That decision had held that, as a cable system, Aereokiller was entitled to retransmit the programming broadcast by a television station under a statutory license, without specific permission from the copyright holders in that programming. The Court of Appeals, while finding that the wording of Section 111 was ambiguous, determined that the consistent position taken by the Copyright Office, finding that cable systems as defined by Section 111 had to be local services retransmitting TV programming, with some fixed facilities to a defined set of communities was determinative of the issue. The Copyright Office’s interpretation was given particular deference as Congress had been well-aware of this interpretation of the statute in other contexts, had in the past amended the Copyright Act to accommodate other new technologies that the Copyright Office found to be outside its definition of a cable system, and had taken no action to amend the statute to include Internet-based video transmission services.

The issue in the case is whether the broad definition of a cable system included in Section 111 would include an over-the-top system such as that offered by Aereokiller. The definition contained in Section 111 is:

A “cable system” is a facility, located in any State, territory, trust territory, or possession of the United States, that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service. For purposes of determining the royalty fee under subsection (d)(1), two or more cable systems in contiguous communities under common ownership or control or operating from one headend shall be considered as one system.

The question of whether this definition includes Internet-based video systems has been raised many times since the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision (about which we wrote here), which found that the retransmission of television signals by such systems were “public performances” that needed a license. After the Supreme Court’s determination in Aereo, which had language comparing these over-the-top systems to cable systems that need a statutory license to cover their public performances, these services argued that they were in fact cable systems entitled to rely on the Section 111 statutory license to cover their public performances of the TV station’s programming. These systems argued that they made “secondary retransmissions” of television signals “by wire, cables, microwave or other communications channels” – the Internet argued to be one of those other communications channels. While most courts have rejected this argument (see our articles here and here), a District Court in California was an exception, finding that the statutory language was broad enough to cover these Internet-based systems.
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The US District Court in Washington DC last week decided that FilmOn X could not rely on the compulsory license of Section 111 of the Copyright Act to retransmit the signal of over-the-air television stations to consumers over the Internet. The compulsory license allows a system to rebroadcast copyrighted material without getting express permission from the copyright holder, as long as the service files the rules set out by the statutory provisions that create the license. The DC Court’s decision was the exact opposite of a decision reached in July by a California court which found that FilmOn did fit within the definition of a cable system as set out by the Copyright Act (see our summary of that decision here). Why the difference in opinions over exactly the same system?

Both Courts focused on the language of Section 111 which defines a cable system as follows:

A “cable system” is a facility, located in any State, territory, trust territory, or possession of the United States, that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service. For purposes of determining the royalty fee under subsection (d)(1), two or more cable systems in contiguous communities under common ownership or control or operating from one headend shall be considered as one system.

Even though both courts looked to this same definition, they reach different conclusions – the principal difference being one over the requirement that, to be a cable system, the company must make “secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels.” The California court had looked at this definition, and determined that Internet retransmissions of TV programs were in fact secondary transmissions (a secondary transmission being a retransmission of the broadcast) by “wires, cables, microwave or other communications channels” – concluding essentially that the Internet was a communications channel. The DC Court, in contrast, did a far more searching analysis of this statutory language, and found that Internet transmissions don’t qualify as cable systems under this definition.
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Who says that the Internet is not regulated?  Whether to treat Internet video providers by the same rules that apply to cable and direct broadcast satellite systems is the subject of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released by the FCC just before Christmas, notice of which was published in the Federal Register today, setting the comment dates on the proposal.  Comments are due by February 17, and replies by March 2.  This proceeding could have a substantial impact on Internet video providers – potentially extending FCC jurisdiction to a whole host of services not currently subject to its rules, and potentially subjecting Internet video services to all sorts of rules that apply to traditional MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors), including the FCC’s EEO rules, captioning rules and CALM Act compliance.  Even the political broadcasting rules, which the FCC notes in the NPRM only specifically apply to cable and direct broadcast satellite rather than to MVPDs generally, could potentially be looked at in the future for these services should they come under FCC jurisdiction.  At the same time, the rules could also have an impact on program suppliers and broadcast networks, as various rules dealing with access to cable and broadcast programming could extend to Internet video providers, potentially conflicting with existing contractual obligations and even the Copyright Act.  What are some of the specific issues being considered?

The issues raised in the Notice are many – including the very fundamental one as to whether the FCC even has the authority to include Internet delivered video (what the FCC refers to as Over the Top or OTT providers) under the rules for MVPDs.  While the general definition of MVPD would seem to cover Internet video (as it covers anyone who makes multiple channels of video programming available for purchase by subscribers), it is not that simple.  As with any Federal law, one can’t just stop the analysis with a quick read of the statute.  The statute, in at least one place, defines a “channel” as a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum capable of delivering a TV channel.  And the FCC has defined a TV channel as one comparable to what is delivered by broadcast TV.  It’s that reference to “electromagnetic spectrum” that has tripped up previous services seeking an expansion of the MVPD definition.  In the case of Internet-delivered service called Sky Angel, the FCC staff 5 years ago determined that, as it was not a facilities based system – it did not control that electromagnetic spectrum on which its programming was delivered – it could not be an MVPD.  The full Commission sought comments on the staff decision then (see our article on that request for comments on Sky Angel here and here,) and, with the recent Aereo decision (see our articles here and here) and its aftermath, and the seemingly daily announcement of new online video service offerings from everyone from CBS to HBO to Dish and Disney, the FCC seems now ready to move with this expansion of its authority to cover video on the Internet.  Because of the potential for very similar video services to have very different regulatory burdens (cable and satellite could be subject to all the FCC MVPD rules, while the same programming, delivered by an Internet service, might have none of those obligations under the current regulatory interpretations), the majority of the FCC want to move forward with this proposal.  But it asks for comments on whether it really has the authority to do so. 
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The FCC announced two significant policy initiatives by Blog post in the last week – perhaps recognizing that the Internet provides a better way of packaging a message about policy directions than an unpredictable news conference.  The two decisions announced this week by Blog post were (1) the Chairman announcing that he has directed that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking be circulated among the other Commissioners to treat Over-the-Top TV providers (“OTT” providers, usually those that provide service over the Internet) of linear programming as MVPDs – meaning that they would be treated, for regulatory purposes, in much the same way as cable and satellite TV services, and (2) an announcement by the head of the incentive auction task force that the auction by which some of the broadcast TV spectrum will be purchased from TV users and resold to wireless carriers for broadband wireless uses will be postponed from its expected date in the summer of 2015 until early 2016.  We will write about the postponement of the auction later.  But what does the MVPD proposal mean?

The MVPD issue is one that we last wrote about here.  At the urging of some OTT providers, apparently including Aereo, the FCC has been urged to treat these providers, when they provide “linear” programming (programming that is provided at set times on a set schedule, in the manner of broadcast TV or cable programming, as opposed to the on-demand programming of a Netflix or Hulu), in the same fashion as cable and satellite.  The Chairman, in his blog post, announces his support for an FCC proceeding to review that proposal, apparently looking to use linear Internet programmers as a new competitive force against cable and satellite TV.  By treating these services as MVPDs, they could get access to over-the-air TV programming (if they can negotiate retransmission consent agreements with the TV stations) and equal access to programming provided by vertically integrated cable programmers (those programmers that have attributable ownership from cable system operators).  But, obviously, there are some big “ifs” here.
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Could a change in the FCC treatment of Internet delivered video services be in the works – and how would that affect services like Aereo?  There were a number of published articles last week that suggested that the FCC was considering extending the definition of a Multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) to over-the-top video providers or, as they are apparently being referred to, as Online Video Distributors (OVD) who provide linear programming like a cable or satellite company (as opposed to an on-demand provider like NetFlix).  While Chairman Wheeler at a press conference following last week’s open FCC meeting reportedly stated that the issue was “kicking around” implying that no decisions had been made, the FCC did announce that it was making a long-outstanding proceeding to look at this issue into a “permit but disclose” proceeding, meaning that parties can lobby the FCC on the issue as long as they file statements for the record disclosing the substance of their conversations with decision-makers.  What does all this mean?

If the Commission were to consider OVDs to be MVPDs, they would presumably be covered by all of the rules that apply to cable and satellite – including provisions that allow equal access to cable network programming in which the cable companies have a financial interest, and would also be subject to the must carry-retransmission consent regime that is applicable to other MVPDs, requiring MVPDs to negotiate with (and in many cases pay) TV stations to carry their programming.  The open proceeding to consider OVDs as MVPDs was started by a company called Sky Angel that focused on family-friendly programming.  The service initially delivered its programming by satellite, but migrated it to the Internet, at which time they wanted access to cable programming including Animal Planet.  When access to that programming was denied, they complained to the FCC.  The FCC staff initially denied the complaint, determining that MVPDs had to be “facility based,” meaning that they had to own the actual facilities that delivered the programming to the consumer.  The full Commission over two  years ago asked for public comment on whether this decision was correct – we wrote about that request for comment here and here – and the proceeding has essentially sat at the FCC ever since, until it began to get some renewed interest in connection with the Aereo case.
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The Supreme Court decision in the Aereo case seemed to be the end of the line for the service that was retransmitting television stations signals without consent, as it found that the broadcasters were entitled to an injunction to force Aereo to cease the public performance of their signals without consent.  In fact, Aereo itself seemed to think so too, shutting off its service soon after the decision.  But in a move that was surprising to some, Aereo has apparently not thrown in the towel, and it is now back in Court with a two-pronged argument as to why its service is still viable (see its letter to the Court here).  First, it argues that, as the Supreme Court seemed to think that Aereo acted like a cable system and should be treated in the same manner as a cable system for purposes of determining whether its retransmission of a television stations signal was a public performance, it might as well be treated like a cable system for all purposes, and thus it should be entitled to carry the signals of TV stations pursuant to the statutory license granted to cable systems by Section 111 of the Copyright Act.  Second, it argues that, even if it does not qualify for treatment as a cable system, it should nevertheless be able to retransmit television signals – just not in real time, as the Aereo contends that the Court decision only prevented simultaneous and near simultaneous retransmissions of the television stations’ signals.  Offering once again a fearless prediction – I doubt these arguments will help Aereo any more than did their arguments before the Supreme Court.

Admittedly, their argument that they qualify as a cable system under the Copyright Act has some appeal.  In fact, as we noted in our summary of the oral argument before the Supreme Court, the Justices even asked why the company did not qualify as a cable company.  Section 111 of the Copyright Act defines a cable system as follows:

A “cable system” is a facility, located in any State, territory, trust territory, or possession of the United States, that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service.

That language is seemingly broad, covering not just what most of us think as a cable system (one that uses wires to transmit TV programming to the customer), as it talks expansively of “other communications channels” to deliver programming.  Of course, when satellite TV started, they were unsure of their status under this definition, and ended up getting a whole new section of the act to determine their ability to retransmit local TV signals to their subscribers.  But even if this section can be read expansively to cover Aereo, what does that get them?
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The Supreme Court decided the Aereo case (decision here) and, if I can brag a little, the decision was pretty much what we predicted here after the oral argument – a relatively narrow decision finding that there is a public performance of the broadcast television signals retransmitted by Aereo as part of their service.  The Court looked at the service, and concluded that it effectively does what a cable system does with broadcast television stations – it takes their signals off the air and transmits them to the public, and charges a fee for doing so.  The only meaningful difference with Aereo for purposes of the decision was that it did not get the broadcasters permission to retransmit their signals.  Because its performance of the television stations’ signals was not authorized, the Court concluded that the service had violated the rights of the copyright holders, and remanded the case to the lower courts to finalize decisions which will presumably stop the retransmission of station signals unless Aereo gets permission from the TV broadcasters.

The decision was a 6-3 vote of the Court, with the dissenters adopting Aereo’s position that it was not the service that was making the performance, but each individual user, and thus the performance was a private one for which no permission of the copyright holder is necessary (akin to turning on the TV and performing its programming to yourself in your living room, or singing to your family in the car).  The dissenters, led by Justice Scalia, looked at three principal reasons for their conclusions that the majority missed the boat – (1) The statutory provisions and legislative history cited by the majority did not support the decision; (2) Aereo’s technology is different from cable as it sends one signal to one individual when the individual asks for it, as opposed to a cable system which is always sending all the TV signals to its subscribers, and (3) There was no volitional conduct by Aereo to infringe on copyrights – all the conduct actually seeking any infringing content was that of the users (going so far as to suggest that, while Aereo may not have violated the public performance rights of the copyright holders, it might still be contributorily infringing on their copyrights by encouraging the infringement by users).  The majority dismissed these complaints, for many of the same reasons that we have written about before (as summarized below).
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The Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in the Aereo case yesterday, it has received all the briefs, and now we all just wait for a decision – to probably be released late in June before the Court’s summer recess.  The transcript of yesterday’s oral argument has been released and is available here.  It makes for interesting reading, as the questions from the Court seemed to be dubious of Aereo’s claims that it can retransmit the signal of a broadcast television station over the Internet, to the public for a fee, without the consent of or any payment to the stations.  While dubious about the Aereo service, the Court was also concerned about the potential impact of any decision against Aereo on cloud services and even on other distributors of media content.  Lots of issues came up during the course of the argument, and it will be very interesting to see how the Court resolves these in its final decision.  Keep reading, and I’ll make my prediction. 

While Court arguments can never be relied on to predict the decision, they can at least provide insight into the questions that the Justices are considering.  One question that recurred throughout the argument was raised by Justice Sotomayor in the first question that was asked – why wasn’t Aereo a cable system under Copyright law, as it retransmits television programming to consumers for a fee?  Counsel for both parties contended that it was not a cable system, though neither gave an entirely satisfactory reason for that position.  The definition of a cable system in Section 111 of the Copyright Act, which governs the compulsory license granted to cable systems to retransmit over-the-air TV stations and all of the content that they broadcast, defines a “cable system” as:

a facility…that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or broadcast by one or more television stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals by wires, cables, microwave or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service.

As the Justices said, this sure looks like what Aereo is doing.  As we have written before, the FCC is looking at whether an IP based video-programming service should be classified as a cable system.  It might well have been easier for the attorney representing the broadcasters to concede that Aereo was very much like a cable system, as if it was so classified, it would have proved the argument that they broadcasters were trying to make – that its retransmission of television programming was a public performance that required the permission of the broadcaster.
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Aereo finally lost a court decision.  The US District Court in Utah released a well-reasoned decision finding that the service, by transmitting via the Internet over-the-air TV programming to subscribers without any consent from the TV stations or their program suppliers, violated the copyrights that the stations have in their programming.  Specifically, the Court found that the transmissions were public performances, the very issue to be determined later this year by the US Supreme Court when it considers the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York finding that no public performance was involved in the Aereo transmissions.  (See our summary of the NY decision here).  The Utah Court issued an injunction preventing Aereo from operating in Utah until the issue is decided by the Supreme Court. 

This is the first case that Aereo itself has lost, also winning a favorable decision from a District Court in Boston which essentially followed the Second Circuits reasoning (see our summary of the Boston decision here).  But the Aereo copycat service, FilmOn X, which presented essentially the same legal issues to Courts, has lost two decisions, one in California and one in Washington DC (see our summary of the DC decision here), both courts finding that the public performance right was implicated by Aereo’s transmissions.  Oral arguments in the Supreme Court are to be held in April, with a decision in the case expected before the Court adjourns for its summer recess in July.  Does this Utah decision serve as a preview of the upcoming Supreme Court decision?
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