Courts and Congress Put Spotlight on Copyright Office

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed broadcasters a major win this week in their long-running legal battle with Aereo-clone Film On. A unanimous three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling, which had held that FilmOn was eligible for the compulsory license under Section 111 of the Copyright Act that allows “cable systems” to retransmit copyrighted programming contained in broadcast signals without needing to get permission from the copyright holders.

In overturning that ruling, the circuit court closed an apparent loophole created by the Supreme Court in its 2014 ruling against Aereo, in which it held that Aereo was infringing broadcasters’ public performance right by retransmitting broadcast signals over the internet. In addressing whether Aereo was “transmitting” broadcast signals as defined in the statute, Justice Stephen Breyer reasoned that Aereo was acting, for all intents and purposes, like a cable system, which unambiguously “transmits” a signal, and therefore Aereo required a license under the statute’s Transmit Clause.

Maria Pallante

FilmOn seized on that reasoning to argue in its defense against a lawsuit brought by Fox, that it should be treated as a cable system for purposes of the compulsory license, which is a related but legally separate issue under the law. Several courts rejected that argument (FilmOn was sued in multiple jurisdictions) but one judge, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, accepted it, ruling in Aereo’s favor, which led to Fox’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Read More »

Aereo’s Fuzzy Legal Legacy

While the FCC seems to have backed off for now from a proposal to update the regulatory definition of multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to include certain types of over-the-top services, the battle over how the law should treat online video rages on along other fronts.

aereo_antennaOn Wednesday, a redacted copy of an opinion issued under seal last month by U.S. district court judge Rosemary Collyer, concluding that OTT broadcast service FilmOn X was not entitled to the compulsory license that cable and satellite services rely on when they retransmit copyrighted content contained in broadcast signals, was released to the public. And even with the redactions, it’s now clear that Judge Collyer took a 180-degree different view of the question than U.S. district judge George Wu took last year in ruling that FilmOn was, in fact, entitled to the compulsory license.

The two questions — who qualifies as a MVPD under FCC regulations? and who qualifies for the compulsory copyright license MVPDs rely on? — are legally distinct, but closely related. Read More »

OTT Retransmission: The Next Net Neutrality

Come the fall, the Federal Communications Commssion’s consideration of its proposal to reclassify some over-the-top video services as multichannel video programming providers (MVPDs) is likely to become the agency’s next highly divisive issue, reprising the same ideological and partisan differences that marked the debate over net neutrality.

Last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed that the commission will take up the proposal in the fall, and indicated that he favored making the switch, which would grant online video distributors (OVDs) the same program access rights as cable and satellite providers while also imposing some of the same restrictions and FCC sealrequirements. But in a speech to the Churchill Club in Palo Alto, Calif., last week, Republican commissioner Ajit Pai, who had dissented at great length from the FCC’s net neutrality rules, laid down the gauntlet again.

“This morning, I would like to make clear that I strongly oppose this proposal,” Pai said. “Given the remarkable success of the over-the-top video industry, the burden should be on those who favor new regulations to prove what’s wrong and explain why we should change. That case just hasn’t been made.”

As with his opposition to net neutrality rules, Pai’s analysis of OVD reclassification leans heavily on standard conservative “free market: good; regulation: bad” framing. Beyond the boilerplate, though, he raises an issue that I also noted in a previous post here on OVD reclassification: Changing the FCC’s definition of who qualifies as a MVPD, by itself, will not guarantee OVDs will be able to retransmit broadcast signals on the same terms as cable and satellite providers because the FCC has no authority to convey a license to the copyrighted programming contained in those signals. Traditional cable TV systems operate under a compulsory license, created by Congress and administered by the U.S. Copyright Office, that gives them automatic permission to rebroadcast copyrighted programming in exchange for paying statutory royalties. Read More »