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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Over-the-top video systems, using the Internet to transmit over-the-air TV signals to consumers, are back in the news. Last week, a US District Court Judge in the Central District of California, in a case involving FilmOnX, an Aereo-like service that had been involved in many of the court decisions that had preceded the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision, suggested that such platforms can get that public performance right through the statutory license provided by Section 111 of the Copyright Act – the same section of the Act that allows cable systems to retransmit broadcast signals without getting permission from every copyright holder of every program broadcast on those stations. Just last year, we were writing about the Supreme Court decision in the Aereo case, where the Court determined that a company could not use an Internet-based platform to stream the signals of over-the-air television stations within their own markets without first getting public performance rights from the stations themselves. The new decision raises the potential of a new way for these Internet services to try to get the rights to rebroadcast TV signals.

The FilmOn decision was on a motion for summary decision, and is a very tentative decision – the Judge recognizing that he was weighing in on a very sensitive subject, going where both the FCC and the Copyright Office have thus far feared to tread, and disagreeing with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that had held the opposite several years ago in the Ivi decision. The FilmOn decision is a preliminary one – subject to further argument before the Judge at the end of the month. Even if adopted as written, the judge recognized the potential impact of his decision, and the fact that it contradicted Ivi and other decisions. Thus, the decision stated that its effect would be stayed pending an immediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. So, even if finalized, we have not seen the last of this argument yet.
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The FCC has extended the Reply Comment deadline in its proceeding looking at whether to apply some or all of the regulations applicable to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs – cable and satellite TV) to over-the-top video providers who provide multiple channels of video programming in a linear fashion (i.e. like a cable system, with

The FCC yesterday released a public notice extending the comment dates in their proceeding to regulate Online (or “over-the-top”) Video, particularly Internet video providers who provide multiple channels of linear video programming (programming streamed at the same time to all viewers, as opposed to on-demand video like that provided by Netflix or Amazon), in the

While we are in the Holiday season, the regulatory obligations faced by broadcasters don’t stop.  December brings a continuation of the TV renewal cycle, though we are nearing the end of that cycle.  Renewal applications for all TV, Class A and LPTV stations in the following states are due on December 1: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  These stations need to file their first two post-filing license renewal announcements on the first and 16th of the month.  Stations that filed their license renewal applications in October also will be broadcasting their post-filing announcements on those same days (their last two announcements).  Those would be stations in the following states and territories: Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, and Saipan.  TV stations in the states that file license renewals on February 1 (those in New York and New Jersey) have to start running their pre-filing announcements on the December 1 (and run a second on December 16).

There are other routine filings due in December.  On December 1, Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations with employment units with 5 or more full-time employees in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont all need to complete their EEO Public File Report and place that report in their public file (and on their websites, if they have one).  Noncommercial stations still have obligations to file Biennial Ownership Reports on every other anniversary of the filing of their license renewal applications.  That means that these reports are due on December 1 for Noncommercial Television Stations in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont; and on the same day for Noncommercial AM and FM Radio Stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
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