Why the Supreme Court’s Aereo Decision Protects Creators without Endangering the Cloud

This post was coauthored by Geoffrey Manne and Ben Sperry of the International Center for Law and Economics. It originally appeared at Truth on the Market.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released its much-awaited decision in ABC v. Aereo. The Court reversed the Second Circuit, holding that Aereo directly infringed the copyrights of broadcast television program owners by publicly performing their works without permission. Justice Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the Court, was joined by five other Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and the liberal-leaning bloc. Interestingly, Justice Scalia dissented on textualist grounds, joined by his conservative-leaning colleagues Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.

As this split illustrates, debates about intellectual property often don’t break down along partisan or ideological lines, and the division between the majority and the dissent in Aereo focused entirely on how to interpret the copyright statute, not on the underlying philosophical merits of property rights or policy judgments regarding the costs and benefits of stronger or weaker IP.

The majority, relying on both the legislative history and the text of the Copyright Act of 1976, emphasized that the Act sought to foreclose the workaround by cable companies of broadcasters’ copyrights that the Supreme Court had previously sanctioned in a duo of cases—and that Aereo’s conduct was functionally almost identical to the unauthorized retransmissions by cable companies prior to the 1976 Act.

Justice Scalia dissented on two grounds: first, that the majority based its reading of the statute on legislative history, a practice he opposes as a means of divining a statute’s meaning; and second, that the majority relied on a vague and inapt comparison between Aereo’s allegedly infringing conduct and cable companies’ pre-1976 retransmissions of broadcast network programming.

We argue here, building on our amicus brief and our previous blog post on Aereo, that, regardless of which test applies, Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. Moreover, we argue that the Court’s test in Aereo is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and that it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

The Court Adopts (Some of) Our Arguments

In our brief, we reviewed two key Supreme Court rulings that influenced how Congress rewrote the Copyright Act in 1976. As we explained:

In the 1960s, two owners of programming aired over broadcast television separately brought copyright infringement suits against cable companies that—like Aereo—retransmitted television broadcasts of the plaintiffs’ works without compensating the owners. Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S. 390 (1968); Teleprompter Corp. v. CBS, Inc., 415 U.S. 394 (1974). In both cases, this Court found for the defendants, holding that a cable company’s retransmission of a television broadcast signal did not constitute a “performance” of that program under the Copyright Act in force at the time. Dissatisfied with these rulings, Congress effectively abrogated Fortnightly and Teleprompter in the Copyright Act of 1976, defining a transmission of a performance as a performance itself. 17 U.S.C. § 101. Although Congress’s immediate reason for making this change was to bar cable companies from retransmitting broadcast television programs without compensating their owners, the law was written so as to be as future-proof as possible.

We argued that for the Court to find that the Copyright Act does not reach Aereo’s conduct would run contrary to the law’s text and purpose, for Aereo designed its system to evade copyright in much the same way as cable companies operated prior to 1976. The Court agreed with this analogy, holding that:

By means of its technology (antennas, transcoders, and servers), Aereo’s system receives programs that have been released to the public and carries them by private channels to additional viewers. It carries whatever programs it receives, and it offers all the programming of each over-the-air station it carries [alterations, citations, and quotation marks omitted].

Furthermore, in our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

What about Dropbox and similar services? The Court took pains to note that its opinion does not consider “whether the public performance right is infringed when the user of a service pays primarily for something other than the transmission of copyrighted works, such as the remote storage of content.” The Court also cited the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, observing that “to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.”

Below, we first discuss Justice Scalia’s dissent, and explain why Aereo’s volitional conduct with respect to copyrighted works sufficed to render the company directly liable for infringement, even under Scalia’s standard. We next discuss the implications for cloud computing, and explain why the Court’s test may in fact be clearer than the volitional conduct test, actually offering more legal protection for cloud computing than the dissent’s standard would.

Aereo Is Liable for Copyright Infringement Under the Volitional Conduct Test

Scalia, ever the critic of judges relying on legislative history and exercising too much discretion over substantive law, rejected what he called the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” standard. Instead, he argued that the Court should adopt the volitional conduct test used by various federal appellate courts, writing that “[a] defendant may be held directly liable only if it has engaged in volitional conduct that violates the Act.”

Scalia then asserted that Aereo is more like a copy shop than a video-on-demand service, because Aereo allows its customers to choose which programs they view and when to activate the copying function. Therefore, Scalia argued, Aereo “plays no role in selecting the content, [and] cannot be held directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy.” Distinguishing Aereo’s conduct from that of Netflix, Scalia noted that the latter company’s “selection and arrangement [of content] constitutes a volitional act directed to specific copyrighted works and thus serves as a basis for direct liability” (or would so serve if Netflix lacked the requisite licenses).

Yet even if Justice Scalia is right that the volitional conduct test would be easier for courts to apply in future cases than the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test—and, as we discuss below, we believe this widely-held view is incorrect—it does not follow that the dissent properly applied the volitional conduct test to Aereo.

First, Aereo does in fact “curate” the content it offers, in several respects. In its attempt to drive a Mack truck through the 2nd Circuit’s holding in Cartoon Network that a cable company doesn’t publicly perform works by offering its users remote DVR service, Aereo built a business model around over-the-air television content—which represents only a small fraction of the content Aereo could have obtained from free, publicly accessible sources (e.g, the Internet). Aereo also selected the cities in which it installed the dime-sized antennas that pick up over-the-air programming.

Perhaps most importantly, as far as we can tell, Aereo does not offer all the ATSC broadcasts transmitted over-the-air in the cities where the service is available. In New York, for example, Aereo claims to offer 16 channels (and several virtual sub-channels), but it doesn’t claim to offer such channels as WMBQ-CD, WDVB-CD, WNYZ-LP, or WASA-LD—all of which are broadcast over-the-air throughout central New York, according to AntennaWeb. Meanwhile, Aereo does offer Bloomberg TV—a non-broadcast channel for which Aereo voluntarily sought and acquired licenses to retransmit.

Second, evaluating whether Aereo’s actions to make available over-the-air programming embody sufficient volition to render the company itself—as opposed to its users—directly responsible for performing broadcast television turns on more than the extent to which Aereo curated its offerings. As the Court explained, Aereo built a complex system of “antennas, transcoders, and servers” for the sole purpose of monetizing broadcast television shows. In “providing this service,” the Court noted, “Aereo uses its own equipment, housed in a centralized warehouse, outside of its users’ homes.” If Aereo merely bought some office space near the top of a New York skyscraper, along with some general-purpose servers connected to the Internet via fiber-optic broadband, the company could certainly rent out these assets to the general public without facing any liability for directly publicly performing copyrighted broadcast programs. Even if some of Aereo’s subscribers placed tiny antennas in their allocated spaces and configured their server instances to stream broadcast television to themselves, Aereo would—at the very worst—face liability for vicarious copyright infringement. But this is not how Aereo operated.

Aereo has, in other words, actually taken numerous “volitional” steps to make available copyrighted content to its subscribers. And while it also offers some services ancillary to the transmission of content (most notably remote-DVR functionality), it offers those as adjuncts to its core function of transmission, not as standalone services.

Had Aereo prevailed, the company and its competitors would likely have pursued other technical workarounds to monetize other types of copyrighted works without their owners’ permission. Although Aereo chose to start with over-the-air broadcast programming—presumably because it could plausibly argue that its subscribers already had an implied right to view over-the-air broadcasts—broadcast television is hardly the only form of valuable content that the public can lawfully access free of charge in one way or another. What about cable television networks that stream some of their shows online for free? Or news websites that allow unauthenticated users to access a limited number of stories free of charge each month? If Aereo had convinced the Court to bless its business model, it would have sent copyright owners a very clear message: don’t publicly distribute your works in any format, or else.

The Court’s Holding Doesn’t Imperil Cloud Services

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this "looks-like-cable-TV" rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn't dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it's going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, as we note above. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider. … Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its user do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.  

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.


Strange bedfellows aside, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit and adopted a rationale similar to the one we articulated in our amicus brief. Even under the volitional conduct test advocated by Scalia in his dissenting opinion, Aereo should lose, just as we argued in our previous post on the issue. This will not be the last time the Court wrestles with applying the nearly 40 year-old Copyright Act to novel technology, but Aereo stands little chance of undermining the cloud computing sector. Although the great IP debate will surely continue, this much is settled law: You cannot build a business model around the idea of rebroadcasting copyrighted network content without paying for it.