Imagine an author. She has a spark of inspiration and sets out developing a story. Characters are sketched out. Index cards bearing plot points are written up, arranged, and rearranged. As the story takes shape, she calls in her assistant, who, sitting at a computer, types in the first draft of the story as the author dictates.

Now, we ask, who has written the story?

Common sense would tell us the author, of course, has written the story, and few would dispute that answer. But in the strictest, technical sense, if we define “to write” narrowly enough to mean only the last act between thought and word on page, the ministerial act, it is the assistant who wrote the story, by typing it out.

Beyond semantics, that narrow definition is not particularly useful. Only the trivia buff would be interested in the participation of the assistant; most of us want to know who the author was, who is responsible, in the real sense, for the story we are reading. We don’t need a million monkeys to know that the process of writing is more than tapping on a keyboard.

In recent decades, due to technology, copyright law has increasingly had to deal with a similar question. Because copyright law is concerned primarily with the act of copying, some courts have had to ask who has made the copy. When a copy has been made without authorization, who is the author of the infringement?

This question becomes most palpable when we start talking about what I will refer to as “copy machines.” These include literal copiers like photocopiers, tape recorders, or DVRs, as well as virtual copy machines—computing processes, both on local devices or working within the cloud. The problem is that some courts have adhered to the strict technical sense of words and defined “to copy” so narrowly that it doesn’t correspond with the common sense definition.


The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo on April 22. The question of who “caused” the infringement is raised by Aereo in its brief, though the issue was not addressed by either the district or appellate courts below. However, it does cast a long shadow over the proceedings. Some commenters have raised the fear that the entire fate of the cloud computing industry rests on the Supreme Court’s decision (this year’s iteration of “copyright will break the internet,” I suppose).1

This argument is unsound for at least two reasons. First, the Cablevision decision, upon which Aereo relies on, only applies within the Second Circuit, so the fact that cloud computing has flourished in other parts of the US, and throughout the world, suggests the decision is not the panacea Aereo supporters claim it is.2 Second, service providers already have safe harbor from liability for infringing activity stemming from user-directed storage.3 So any protection Supreme Court affirmation would provide would largely be redundant.

Nevertheless, US case law has yet to fully develop a satisfactory answer to the question of who “makes” a copy, and it is safe to say the issue will maintain its prominence in the near future. In this article, I want to take a look at this case law to see how courts have approached the question, which is not a novel question in the law. Particularly, I look at the emergence of the “volitional conduct” test to mediate disputes over direct liability on the internet. I note that most often, this test resembles the legal doctrine of proximate causation and argue that ditching volitional conduct entirely in favor of a more direct focus on proximate causation would offer more clarity and better results. I finish by sketching out what a proximate causation inquiry might look like.

Copying, causation, and volition in the courts

Prior to the popularization of the internet, a handful of cases examined the contours of liability for those who make, own, or operate copy machines utilized by others.


In 1973, a court considered a chain of electronics stores operating “Make-A-Tape” machines.4 Customers could select an album from the store’s catalog, purchase one of the blank tapes sold by the store, conveniently receiving as change the two quarters required to operate the machine, and start the “Make-A-Tape.” Within two minutes, the customer could leave the store with a perfect copy of the album at a fraction of the cost.

The Eastern District Court of New York did not delve too deeply into the question of causation, but it did conclude that “Regardless of the precise role played by defendants’ employees, the above-described operation of the Make-A-Tapes clearly evidences their commercial exploitation by defendants for profit in derogation of plaintiffs’ rights of exclusive publication.”

The defendants attempted to escape direct liability by focusing the court’s attention on the self-service nature of the copiers and their resemblance to “a photocopier in a public library.” This did not convince the court, which focused on the differences in time, quality, and cost of reproducing entire works on a photocopier compared to the Make-A-Tape machine. It also pointed out the non-profit nature and altruistic motives of a library, which differ from how the defendants “manifestly utilize the Make-A-Tape as a further source of income.”

Sony Betamax

The issue of who makes a copy did not, apparently, come in front of courts again for another six years, in Universal City Studios v. Sony Corp. of America. The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the secondary liability of a Betamax manufacturer is considered a cornerstone of modern copyright jurisprudence. But little attention is paid to the fact that, years before the highest court would consider indirect liability, the district court considered whether Sony should be directly liable for infringement of Betamax users.

The district court noted that “It is true that one can be found to have infringed directly even without participating in the actual infringing activity.” But the court ultimately held Sony could not be directly liable for copying occurring on the machines it designs and distributes for a number of reasons.

First, Sony does not “loan or otherwise provide the copyrighted work” that is being copied. Second, the copying does not occur on premises “operated and managed by the defendants but rather in a person’s home, a location in which individual privacy is constitutionally protected and over which defendants have no control.”5 Finally, the Betamax players aren’t solely used for unauthorized copying; they have a range of uses and can be used for noninfringing purposes.6


Print shop Kinko’s would find itself in court in the early 90′s, the subject of an infringement complaint for operating a “course packet” service—college professors would provide nearby Kinko’s with selections and chapters from original copyrighted works that had been assigned to students, and Kinko’s would duplicate and assemble the materials into anthologies that they would then sell to students.7

There was little argument that Kinko’s was “making” the copies. However, when it came to assessing damages, Kinko’s argued that it was acting as an agent of the professors’ college since “Section 504(c) provides that the court ‘shall remit statutory damages … where an infringer believed and had reasonable grounds for believing that his or her use of the copyrighted work was a fair use …, if the infringer was (i) an employee or agent of a nonprofit educational institution….’ 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2).”

The court rejected this argument, saying there was no evidence of an agency relationship between Kinko’s and the university, and Kinko’s was unable to show that “the professors exerted a sufficient level of control over the relationship.”


Finally, one of the earliest cases involving copyright liability in the online context saw a bulletin board system (BBS) operator liable for directly infringing public display and distribution rights.8 Though there was only brief discussion in Frena, the court did say, “There is no dispute that Defendant Frena supplied a product containing unauthorized copies of a copyrighted work. It does not matter that Defendant Frena claims he did not make the copies itself.”


And then came Netcom. In 1995, the Northern District Court of California was confronted with the question of copyright liability for an internet access provider based on infringement occurring on Usenet groups.9 Usenet is a decentralized communications system consisting of thousands of “newsgroups” where users can read and post public messages. Internet access providers can set up a Usenet server to become part of the system and allow their subscribers to interact with Usenet, but the system otherwise functions independently from any one internet access provider—indeed, it operates independently from any individual or entity.

A critic of the Church of Scientology had posted a number of unpublished and published works, without permission, of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to a religion newsgroup. The copyright holders of the works sued for copyright infringement, naming the critic who uploaded the works, the operator of the BBS where the works were uploaded, and Netcom, which provided internet access to the BBS (and, by extension, to the critic). Netcom moved for summary judgment on the issue of its own direct liability.

The court granted the motion, saying “Although copyright is a strict liability statute, there should still be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party.” The court described the copying done by Netcom as “automatic[] and uniform[]” and its actions as “necessary to have a working system for transmitting Usenet postings to and from the Internet.” Thus, “the mere fact that Netcom’s system incidentally makes temporary copies of plaintiffs’ works does not mean Netcom has caused the copying.”

Netcom would serve as the stepping off point for analyzing direct liability online. Nearly every subsequent case where the issue of direct liability for the owner or operator of a copying service or platform arose refers to the case.

But while these courts agree that Netcom said direct liability requires some form of “volitional conduct”, there is little agreement over what that means.

After Netcom

The Fourth Circuit adopted Netcom in CoStar Group v. LoopNet, saying

to establish direct liability under §§ 501 and 106 of the Act, something more must be shown than mere ownership of a machine used by others to make illegal copies. There must be actual infringing conduct with a nexus sufficiently close and causal to the illegal copying that one could conclude that the machine owner himself trespassed on the exclusive domain of the copyright owner. The Netcom court described this nexus as requiring some aspect of volition or causation.10

However, the language of CoStar, rather than describing a general causation principle, suggests that it was laying down a blackletter rule that “an ISP who owns an electronic facility that responds automatically to users’ input is not a direct infringer.” A subsequent, unpublished Fourth Circuit opinion lends credence to this notion; in Quantum Systems Integrators v. Sprint Nextel, the court quoted CoStar‘s holding “that ISPs, when passively storing material at the direction of users in order to make that material available to other users upon their request, do not ‘copy’ the material in direct violation of § 106 of the Copyright Act” and rejected defendant’s argument that it was shielded from liability under this rule in part by pointing out that it was not engaging “in ‘conduct typically engaged in by an ISP.’”11

In Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings (“Cablevision“), the Second Circuit adopted Netcom, holding that copies produced by a cable provider’s remote DVR (RS-DVR) system are “made” by the cable provider’s customers, and the cable provider’s contribution of providing the system doesn’t warrant the imposition of direct liability.12 Unlike CoStar, Cablevision didn’t read Netcom as establishing a rule for analyzing the liability of ISPs—indeed, Cablevision operated a sui generis service wholly separate from the Internet. Instead, Cablevision read into Netcom a distinction between human acts and technical processes, with only the former supplying the necessary “volition” for direct liability. “In determining who actually ‘makes’ a copy,” said the Second Circuit, “a significant difference exists between making a request to a human employee, who then volitionally operates the copying system to make the copy, and issuing a command directly to a system, which automatically obeys commands and engages in no volitional conduct.”

The Cablevision court never explains exactly what this difference is or why it is so significant. (Indeed, this statement seems contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s claim in CoStar that employee review of images before they are posted “tends only to lessen the possibility that LoopNet’s automatic electronic responses will inadvertently enable others to trespass on a copyright owner’s rights.” As noted later on, some courts have been too quick to read causation out of the design of automated processes.)

Other cases have taken the same view as Cablevision and held that Netcom stands for the proposition that the design of automated technical processes is never causational. Some courts describe this rule as saying the lack of human intervention means there is no volitional conduct.13 But that is not entirely true. Humans certainly intervened, volitionally, to design the system and maintain and operate it. So, contrary to how courts here have described it, it is more accurate to say this permutation of the “volitional conduct” test limits direct liability when there is no human intervention contemporaneous with the moment a copy is initiated.

Finally, some courts have interpreted “volitional conduct” as roughly synonymous with the general tort principle of “proximate causation.”

At least one court has explicitly called attention to this resemblance. “Notwithstanding these sound decisions, the concept of ‘volition’ can be confusing,” said the Central District Court of California. “‘Volitional’ is sometimes understood to mean ‘intentional,’ and yet no showing of intent is required for direct infringement liability. In this Court’s view, the key to understanding the so-called ‘volitional conduct’ requirement is to equate it with the requirement of causation, not intent. ‘Just who caused the copyrighted material to be infringed?’”14

And the Ninth Circuit seems to have implicitly taken the position that volitional conduct is equivalent to proximate causation.

In Fox Broadcasting Co. v. Dish Networks, satellite TV provider Dish was sued, in part, for unauthorized copying of television programs made through its PrimeTime Anytime Service (PTAT). When enabled by a subscriber, PTAT automatically recorded all primetime programs from the four major broadcasters and made them available on the subscriber ‘s DVR. Dish argued that its subscribers should be the ones exposed to liability because they, not Dish, “made” the copies.

The Central District Court of California agreed with Dish. On a preliminary injunction motion, the court said Dish was likely to prevail on the merits, relying primarily on the holdings of Netcom and Cablevision that require some element of “volitional conduct” for direct liability.

The decision was appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. But there’s something curious about the opinion. The Circuit does not once mention volition, nor does it cite to the granddaddy of volitional conduct, Netcom (though it does cite approvingly to Cablevision). Instead, it said simply that direct liability “comprises a requirement that the defendant cause the copying.” (Emphasis added). In addition, the court repeats the lower court’s quotation to Prosser’s recitation of the proximate causation inquiry.15 At least one district court within the Ninth Circuit has since suggested that the Circuit had yet to adopt the “volitional conduct” test.16

In short, it is not remarkable to say “that the principle of volition has been applied inconsistently and is not always well understood.”17 The above discussion demonstrates that, since Netcom, at least three versions of the “volitional conduct” test have emerged (four, if you count cases where its application was declined entirely).

I think the last view—that volitional conduct is merely a substitute for proximate causation—is correct, and that the different terminology has led courts astray. Focusing on proximate causation instead of volitional conduct would provide better results. To see why, let’s take a closer look at proximate causation.

Proximate Causation and Copyright

Copyright infringement is a strict liability tort. Knowledge or intent are not required for copyright infringement.18 But infringement does require, like all torts, some element of causation, an act that results in the harm. Causation is typically divided into factual (“but for”) causation and “proximate” causation. Put another way, did the act actually cause the harm and, if so, should the law, as a matter of policy, hold the actor liable for causing the harm.19

Factual causation is not typically difficult to establish since it is such a broad concept. Proximate causation, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. It is not a philosophical or scientific question, but a legal one.

“What we do mean by the word “proximate” is that, because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point.”20

The factual causes of any occurrence are seemingly limitless. One could trace forever the chain of events that lead to a specific harm, but it has long been recognized that there is little sense in extending legal responsibility throughout those chains. The chief mechanism animating this recognition is proximate causation. Proximate causation is a limiting theory about the “specific qualities that an agency must possess in relation to the outcome in order to be its cause in law.”21 As Chief Justice Roberts has said, proximate cause “limits liability at some point before the want of a nail leads to loss of the kingdom.”22

Justice O’Connor, in a case concerning causation under an environmental statute that is silent on the issue, explains how proximate causation is an element of all strict liability torts and roughly sketches its contours and purpose:

Strict liability means liability without regard to fault; it does not normally mean liability for every consequence, however remote, of one’s conduct. I would not lightly assume that Congress, in enacting a strict liability statute that is silent on the causation question, has dispensed with this well-entrenched principle. In the absence of congressional abrogation of traditional principles of causation, then, private parties should be held liable under § 1540(a)(1) only if their habitat-modifying actions proximately cause death or injury to protected animals…

Proximate causation is not a concept susceptible of precise definition. It is easy enough, of course, to identify the extremes. The farmer whose fertilizer is lifted by a tornado from tilled fields and deposited miles away in a wildlife refuge cannot, by any stretch of the term, be considered the proximate cause of death or injury to protected species occasioned thereby. At the same time, the landowner who drains a pond on his property, killing endangered fish in the process, would likely satisfy any formulation of the principle. We have recently said that proximate causation “normally eliminates the bizarre,” and have noted its “functionally equivalent” alternative characterizations in terms of foreseeability, and duty, Proximate causation depends to a great extent on considerations of the fairness of imposing liability for remote consequences. The task of determining whether proximate causation exists in the limitless fact patterns sure to arise is best left to lower courts.23

O’Connor notes the role of fairness in the proximate causation inquiry; other commenters point out the role of justice, blame, and moral responsibility. Some common policy questions underlying proximate causation include “indications of preconceived purpose, specifically intended consequence, necessary or natural result, reasonable foreseeability of result, the intervention of independent causes, whether the defendant’s acts are a substantial factor in the sequence of responsible causation, and the factual directness of the causal connection.”24

Proximate causation is often tied to our expectations. “One connotation of proximate cause is that harm came about in a ‘direct’ or expected way, rather than in an unusual, freakish manner.” In addition, liability may not be found “because of lack of proximate cause in the sense that the accidents are coincidental to defendants’ behavior, unrelated to the normal risk created by their behavior.”25

Finally, proximate causation contains a recognition that liability must necessarily cut off. “At some point in the causal chain, the defendant’s conduct or product may be too remotely connected with the plaintiff’s injury to constitute legal causation ”26

If we revisit the Netcom decision through the lens of proximate causation, we can easily see that the court was considering the same policies. For instance, it considers the consequences of placing liability on the defendant when it notes that holding Netcom liable “would create many separate acts of infringement and, carried to its natural extreme, would lead to unreasonable liability.” It looks at whether the defendant’s acts are a substantial factor in the sequence of responsible causation and the magnitude of the burden of guarding against it when it says holding Netcom directly liable “would hold the entire Internet liable for activities that cannot reasonably be deterred.” The court is, in other words, demonstrating reasons it should limit Netcom’s legal liability despite its factual role in causing the copying.

That is to say that when Netcom says direct liability requires “some element of volition or causation”, it is referring primarily to the latter, not the former. Read appropriately, Netcom means “proximate causation” when it says “volitional conduct”.

If we agree that the “volitional conduct” test and proximate causation are largely synonymous than we can, and should, ditch any talk of “volitional conduct.”

This is preferable for a number of reasons. For one thing, the “volitional conduct” test provides no advantage over a proximate causation inquiry.

Saying direct liability requires volitional conduct is redundant. The second Restatement of the Law on Torts says that an intentional tort requires an “act”. It defines an “act” as “an external manifestation of the actor’s will” and notes “there cannot be an act without volition”. So to say that copyright infringement requires a volitional act is simply to repeat the obvious and doesn’t get us far. It is like saying we have a right to “free speech on Tuesdays.”27

And, in fact, it puts courts and litigants at a disadvantage. Calling proximate causation “volitional conduct” adds little or no clarity or guidance to the test and only further masks the policies that drive proximate causation analysis in the first place.

Proximate causation itself is already a proxy for an unspecified set of policies that underlie law. By skipping over analysis of proximate causation, courts miss the opportunity to be informed by those policies. At the same time, there have been little or no underlying policies that have emerged as guidance since Netcom for applying the volitional conduct test.

At its core, the question of who “makes” a copy when we are dealing with owners, operators or other intermediaries of copy machines is this: at what point do we circumscribe legal responsibility for parties who are factual causes of a copy. That is precisely the type of question that proximate causation seeks to answer.

One initial result of this decision is that courts need to take care in per se rules regarding automated processes. In a world with self-driving cars and computers that can play chess, it should be apparent that the mere fact that an act occurs via an automated function that can operate independent of the operator should not preclude the operator or programmer of the function as a causal agent of the consequences. Whether an automated process is a causal agent of the operator is a question of fact, but surely the design or programming of a process is, in the language of tort law, an external manifestation of the programmer’s will.

Indeed, you rarely see cases outside the copyright context reflect this sort of thinking. For example, just last month, a federal court held that search engine results are protected by the First Amendment. During its analysis, the court stated that “the fact that search-engine results may be produced algorithmically” is irrelevant. “After all, the algorithms themselves were written by human beings, and they ‘inherently incorporate the search engine company engineers’ judgments about what material users are most likely to find responsive to their queries.’” It would be weird to say the results of an automated process can be considered protected speech attributed to the operator of the system employing that process, unless they are infringing, in which case they are not attributable to the operator. And indeed, at least a few courts have bucked the trend and found the design of automated processes indicative of causation.28

Analyzing Proximate Causation

The ultimate conclusion here is that using proximate causation to answer the question of who makes a copy is sound. It is superior to the ill-defined “volitional conduct” test that some courts have used and should provide better guidance for courts to reach preferable outcomes. So what would a proximate causation analysis look like?

A full dissertation on proximate causation of copying online is beyond this article, but I think it is still worth attempting to trace out some rudimentary factors that courts might consider.

Since we are concerned with who makes a copy, it makes sense to focus much of our attention on the various steps and elements needed to create a copy. For example:

1) Location of equipment

Location is important, just as it is in most areas of the law. This is not so much a question of geography, but rather over the nature of the place, particularly who has dominion over the premises. Saying, as Aereo has, that the only difference between it and a personal antenna is the “length of the cable” is as inaccurate and meaningless as saying the only difference between my apartment and the Italian restaurant down the street is the amount of steps I have to take to get there. There are, it turns out, quite a few other differences, most far more relevant to any legal issue that may arise. I would point out that I am not as convinced as some courts are of the analogy between a self-service copy machine and that same machine in someone’s home. The copy machine in someone’s home is reserved for their use and so the amount of copying is necessarily limited. But the copy machine at a business is open to a potentially continuous stream of people coming to copy.29

How has this factor been handled by courts? On the one hand, there is little weight given to the fact that copying equipment is on a defendant’s premises—in fact, CoStar expressly exempts the housing and automated operation of copying equipment without more from direct liability. On the other hand, when the copying equipment is outside a defendant’s dominion, courts tend to view defendant’s participation as too remote for direct liability.30

2) Provision of copyrighted work

Implicit in many cases relying on Netcom is the fact that the services play a “hands-off” role in the copying, acting as a conduit or providing instead a platform for users to make their own copies—from their own original works.31 It makes less sense to limit liability for causing a copy when a service is providing the user with the work to be copied.

Even Cablevision, which found no direct liability for the provider of a remote DVR service, grudgingly admitted this point. The Second Circuit there said Cablevision’s “unfettered discretion in selecting the programming that it would make available for recording… is indeed more proximate to the creation of illegal copying than, say, operating an ISP or opening a copy shop, where all copied content was supplied by the customers themselves or other third parties.”

Courts should be skeptical of attempts by services to argue they are formally not the provider of a work despite functionally providing those works. One example of this can be seen in Columbia Pictures Industries v. Redd Horne.32 Defendant there, sued for infringing plaintiff’s public performance rights for operating viewing booths in its video rental store premises, argued that it was protected by the first sale doctrine. That is, since it had rented the video tapes to its customers, it was no longer responsible for any performances that resulted. The court rejected this argument outright, saying that the first sale doctrine only circumscribes a copyright owner’s control over further distributions. It does not operate as a waiver to a copyright owner’s other exclusive rights such as the public performance right.

But the court also noted that defendant’s argument elevated form over function. “The record clearly demonstrates that showcasing a video cassette at Maxwell’s is a significantly different transaction than leasing a tape for home use. Maxwell’s never disposed of the tapes in its showcasing operations, nor did the tapes ever leave the store. At all times, Maxwell’s maintained physical dominion and control over the tapes.”

Citing to Redd Horne, the court in Warner Bros. WTV Systems rejected a similar argument. There, defendant had built a convoluted internet streaming service where films were kept on DVDs and played on DVD players before being transmitted to user’s computers, rather than storing the digital files on a server. It argued that this set-up made it a service that offered “DVD rentals” rather than public performances, thus taking it outside the scope of copyright law. But, as in Redd Horne, the court found the DVDs remained under physical dominion and control of defendants, and did not resemble a DVD rental service.

3) Participation in copying process

How materially did the defendant participate in the copying process? This is one of those questions that can either threaten to swallow every other consideration or become redundant and act as a sort of meta-factor in the analysis. But I think case law does offer some guidance that can help shape this element into something meaningful and useful.

One example can be found in distinctions between cases involving Usenet services—interestingly, Netcom and a surprisingly large percentage of volitional conduct cases have dealt with Usenet. And, like Netcom, the majority have found that causation “is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party.”33 But at least one Usenet service had been found directly liable by a court, and the differences with that service are illustrative here.

In Arista Records v., the court found, unlike other Usenet services, the defendant engaged in direct infringement by doing the following: it took active measures to create servers dedicated to mp3 files and increased retention time of those files knowing they were most popular content on service, it took active steps including automated filters and human review to remove access to certain categories of content and block certain users, and it routinely exercised control over which newsgroups to accept and store and which to reject.

Each of these steps make more directly a cause of the resulting unauthorized copying.’s actions make infringement a more likely and natural result, thus weakening the claim to limit, a “but for” cause of infringement, as a legal cause of infringement.

A second example of a court examining the participation of a defendant in the copying process is found in Capitol Records v. ReDigi, involving a service purportedly allowing “used” digital music files to be sold. Here the court found it relevant to direct liability that the defendant built a service where only copyrighted work could be sold, despite being automated. It also played a “fundamental and deliberate role” in distribution, including providing infrastructure for users’ infringing sales and affirmatively brokering such sales by connecting interested users with available sellers.

Third, one court said a filelocker could face direct liability for the following reasons: it designed and maintained a system that allows uploading and downloading; it created distinct websites, presumably in an effort to streamline users’ access to different types of media; it encouraged and, in some cases paid, its users to upload vast amounts of popular media through a reward program; it disseminated URLs for various files throughout the internet; it provided payouts to affiliate websites who maintain a catalogue of all available files; and, at a minimum, it was plausibly aware of the ongoing, rampant infringement taking place on its websites.34

Finally, by way of contrast, the district court in Sony explained a situation where a defendant’s participation was too attenuated to support direct liability. As noted above, the manufacturer of the Betamax maintained no role in copying once the device was sold to a customer and taken to his home. The sale severed all ties with the customer, the device, and any resulting copies.

What can be gleaned from these cases is that evidence that a service provider has not taken a “hands off” or passive role in operating a copying system will defeat limitation on direct liability. That evidence may take the form of intent, purpose, expectation, or ex ante knowledge.

4) Range of uses of “copy machine”

Closely related to the participation in the copying is the range of uses of a copy machine. A defendant who designs a system that is good for nothing but making infringing copies is very proximate to the resulting infringement. The operator of a service with substantial non-infringing uses—a true general-purpose system—is less so. The range necessary narrows as a defendant’s participation in process attenuates—so only devices which are good for pretty much nothing but infringement would give rise to liability as articles of commerce to the manufacturer.35 Essentially, this factor asks how probable the occurrence of infringement is due to the design of a defendant’s system.

Some courts and commenters single out the “unusual result” as demonstrative of causation, the thing that “makes the difference”. As one scholar explains, “The train wreck is said to be caused by the bent rail even though it was the bent rail together with the fact that the train was going at a certain speed (and other facts, of course) that led to the wreck. To cite the speed—when it is the normal speed of the train—as the cause would be wrong precisely because it is normal and therefore present as a factor when trains are not wrecked.”36 Infringement that occurs on a system designed more for infringing uses is a less unusual result than infringement that occurs on a more general purpose system.

5) Dominion over copy

The party that retains dominion over or possession of a copy once it has been made has less of a claim that he should not be legally responsible for making the copy in the first place. Courts are hesitant to place much stock in the fact that a particular defendant may retain possession over a copy—in Netcom, for example, the court rejected the argument that infringing copies remained on Netcom servers for up to eleven days prohibited it from limiting direct liability. But the converse—a service does not possess the copy once it’s made—has been a factor in limiting direct liability for some courts.37

Dominion over a copy, that is, the right or ability to control the copy, is also relevant. Several courts have limited direct liability by relying on the lack of an ability, legal or technical, to control the copy once it has been made.38 In Dish, though the Ninth Circuit ultimately held that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied a preliminary injunction, it did suggest that Dish’s dominion over the copies being made might end up supporting direct liability. The court said, “That Dish decides how long copies are available for viewing, modifies the start and end times of the primetime block, and prevents a user from stopping a recording might be relevant to a secondary or perhaps even a direct infringement claim.”


“Drawing the line between where legal causation may exist and where, as a matter of law, it cannot, has generated a considerable body of law.”39 Proximate causation is a factual inquiry—a question for the jury. Even then, it is an amorphous concept. The Seventh Circuit, for example, does not even have a definition for proximate causation in its pattern civil jury instructions.40 This article argues that courts should resist further use of the “volitional conduct” test to determine liability for services that make copies for users and allow users to make copies and instead rely on the existing tort doctrine of proximate causation, as this would be a clearer and more common sense approach. It does not purport to give any definitive answers to the proximate causation inquiry, nor suggest that doing so would be any easier than applying proximate causation outside the copyright context.

But I do want to end with a couple miscellaneous points worth mentioning.

First, and perhaps most importantly, while there may be similar principles governing causation of each of the various exclusive rights of a copyright owner, courts must be careful about the distinctions between each specific right. Throughout this article, I have used the term “copying” as shorthand for any of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner.41 However, the factors I trace are most relevant to the reproduction right. The elements of an act of reproduction are different from the elements of an act of distribution or a public performance. To note one important difference: when a copy of a work is made, there is only a single act of reproduction. A transmission, by contrast, may involve multiple performances.42 This materially changes any causation analysis.

Second, although intent, foreseeability or knowledge are not required to establish strict liability, their presence certainly demonstrates a more proximate cause of the resulting harm. Some courts, like the Cablevision court, appear to see evidence of such factors as irrelevant, or even contrary, to direct liability.43 However, it would seem that the fact that a service provider acted in a way that showed it intended the making of copies seems relevant to the question of whether it caused the making of the copies.

The claim that courts should analyze who “makes” a copy under proximate causation rather than volitional conduct is a starting point, not an end point. But it should provide greater clarity and results that are more congruent with common sense—results that should better adhere to copyright’s greater purpose.


  1. See, for example, David Sohn, Cloud Computing Threatened in Aereo Supreme Court Case, CDT (March 3, 2014); Marc Perton, Cablevision: Case against Aereo could destroy cloud computing (and our cloud DVR), Engadget (Dec. 13, 2013). []
  2. Cloud computing does not, for example, appear to have been destroyed in Australia despite a 2012 decision that is the equivalent of reversing Aereo. []
  3. 17 USC § 512(c). []
  4. Elektra Records v. Gem Electronic Distributors, 360 F. Supp. 821 (EDNY 1973). []
  5. The Ninth Circuit would later hold that a place “open to the public” does not include a hotel room because an individual renting a hotel room enjoys a similar constitutional right of privacy. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. v. Professional Real Estate Inv., Inc., 866 F. 2d 278, 281 (9th Cir. 1989). []
  6. The Supreme Court would eventually hold that this characteristic of Betamax players also prevents the imputation of requisite knowledge for contributory infringement by Sony. []
  7. Basic Books, Inc. v. Kinko’s Graphics Corp., 758 F. Supp. 1522 (SDNY 1991). []
  8. Playboy Enterprises v. Frena, 839 F. Supp. 1552 (M.D. Fla. 1993). []
  9. Religious Tech. Center v. Netcom On-line Comm., 907 F. Supp. 1361 (ND Cali. 1995). []
  10. 373 F.3d 544, 550 (4th Cir. 2004). []
  11. 338 Fed. Appx. 329 (4th Cir. 2009). []
  12. 536 F. 3d 121 (2nd Circuit 2008). []
  13. Perfect 10 v. Giganews, CV11-07098 AHM (SHx) (CD Cali, March 8, 2013); Wolk v. Kodak Imaging Network, Inc., 840 F. Supp.2d 724, 742 (SDNY 2012), “There is no dispute that any reproduction, display or transmission of the Plaintiff’s images by or through the KODAK Gallery website is an automated process with no human intervention by any employee of the Kodak Defendants. The fact that Wolk’s images are copied into product simulations in addition to being transmitted to fulfillment vendors does not constitute a volitional act where the copying is automated”; Disney Enterprises v. Hotfile, 798 F. Supp. 2d 1303, 1309 (SD Fla 2011), “courts have repeatedly held that the automatic conduct of software, unaided by human intervention, is not ‘volitional’”; Parker v. Google, Inc., 422 F. Supp. 2d 492 (ED Pa 2006), “When an ISP automatically and temporarily stores data without human intervention so that the system can operate and transmit data to its users, the necessary element of volition is missing. The automatic activity of Google’s search engine is analogous”; Field v. Google Inc., 412 F. Supp. 2d 1106 (D. Nevada 2006), holding that, regarding the creation and downloading of a cached copy of a web page from Google’s servers, “The automated, non-volitional conduct by Google in response to a user’s request does not constitute direct infringement under the Copyright Act.” []
  14. Perfect 10 v. Giganews, supra. []
  15. The lower court initially misquoted Prosser as saying the proximate causation inquiry looked at who was “the most significant and important cause” of the copy rather than “whether the conduct has been so significant and important a cause that the defendant should be legally responsible” a fact seized upon by plaintiff’s in their motion for rehearing en banc. The Ninth Circuit denied the rehearing but amended the original opinion to note the misquotation, though the ultimate outcome remained unchanged. []
  16. National Photo Group v. Allvoices, No. C-13-03627 JSC, n.3 (ND Cali, Jan. 24, 2014). []
  17. Eleanor M. Lackman and Scott J. Sholder, The Role of Volition in Evaluating Direct Copyright Infringement Claims Against Technology Providers, 22 Bright Ideas 3 (2013). []
  18. Sater Design Collection v. Waccamaw Construction, No. 4:08-CV-4133-TLW-SVH (D. S.C., Feb. 14, 2011) (“Case law establishes that knowledge or intent is not an element of copyright infringement “). []
  19. “Causation principles generally applicable to tort liability must be considered applicable. These require not only cause-in-fact, but “legal” or “proximate” cause as well, the latter involving a policy rather than a purely factual determination: “whether the conduct has been so significant and important a cause that the defendant should be held responsible.” Brandenburg v. Seidel, 859 F. 2d 1179, 1189 (4th Cir. 1988), quoting Prosser and Keeton Torts, § 42 p. 272 (general principle) (5th ed. 1984); “Cause in fact, “but for” causation, is not enough for liability. ” * * * `”Once it is established that the defendant’s conduct has in fact been a cause of the injury * * * there remains the question whether the defendant should be legally responsible for what he has caused * * *,”` ” and that is a question of policy to be resolved by the courts.” Benner v. Bell, 602 NE 2d 896, 899 (Ill App 4d 1992). []
  20. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 248 N.Y. 339 (1928) (Andrews, J., dissenting). []
  21. Antony Honoré, “Causation in the Law”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). []
  22. CSX Transportation v. McBride, 131 S. Ct. 2630, 2646 (2011). []
  23. Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter, Communities for Great Ore., 515 US 687, 712-13 (1995) (O’Connor concurrence). []
  24. Khurana v. Innovative Health Care Systems, Inc., 130 F. 3d 143, 148-49 (5th Cir. 1997). See also Benner v. Bell, supra at 899, noting policy questions underlying proximate causation include “reasonable foreseeability of injury, likelihood of injury, magnitude of burden of guarding against it, and consequences of placing that burden on defendant.” []
  25. Steven Shavell, “Causation and Tort Liability “. []
  26. Union Pump Co. v. Allbritton, 898 SW 2d 773, 775-76 (Texas 1995). []
  27. See Frederick Schauer, Free Speech on Tuesdays, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2014-10 (January 10, 2014). Schauer takes on the question of what it means to say a right “exists” and examines the way we talk about—and specify—rights. Noting that “there is no remark without remarkability,” Schauer writes that, “although it is thus true that there is in fact a right to free speech on Tuesdays, it would be odd for someone to say that there is a right to free speech on Tuesdays. And that is because to say that there is a right to free speech on Tuesdays implies that there is something different or special about free speech on Tuesdays as compared to some background or baseline understand.” Similarly, to say that causation requires volitional conduct is both technically true but implicitly “remarkable.” []
  28. See, for example, Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi, Inc., 934 F. Supp. 2d 640, 657 (SDNY 2013), “While that process is itself automated, absolving ReDigi of direct liability on that ground alone would be a distinction without a difference. The fact that ReDigi’s founders programmed their software to choose copyrighted content satisfies the volitional conduct requirement and renders ReDigi’s case indistinguishable from those where human review of content gave rise to direct liability.” []
  29. Though the court in Columbia Pictures Indus. v. Redd Horne, Inc., 568 F. Supp. 494 (WD Pennsylvania 1983), aff’d 749 F. 2d 154 (3rd Cir. 1984), was interpreting the definition of a “place open to the public”, it spoke to this distinction as well. In holding that performances in private viewing booths in a public video store were within the scope of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights, the court noted that “the potential exists for a substantial portion of the public to attend such performances over a period of time.” Id. at 500. []
  30. See, for example, In Re Cellco, 663 F. Supp. 2d 363, 377 (SDNY 2009), “Once the customer has downloaded the ringtone onto her telephone, she controls the telephone and makes the decisions that determine whether that ringtone will be triggered by an incoming call signal”; Perfect 10 v Cybernet, 213 F. Supp. 2d 1146, 1168-69 (CD Cali 2002), “Based on the evidence before the Court it appears that Cybernet does not use its hardware to either store the infringing images or move them from one location to another for display. This technical separation between its facilities and those of its webmasters prevents Cybernet from engaging in reproduction or distribution, and makes it doubtful that Cybernet publicly displays the works”; Universal City Studios v. Sony Corp, 480 F. Supp. 429 (CD Cali 1979), “The copying occurs not in a store operated and managed by the defendants but rather in a person’s home, a location in which individual privacy is constitutionally protected and over which defendants have no control.” []
  31. See, for example, Disney v. Hotfile, 798 F. Supp. 2d 1303, 1307 (SD Fla. 2011), “[N]othing in the complaint alleges that Hotfile … took direct, volitional steps to violate the plaintiffs’ infringement. There are no allegations, say, that Hotfile uploaded copyrighted material.” []
  32. 749 F.2d 154 (3rd Cir). []
  33. Perfect 10 v. Giganews, CV11-07098 AHM (SHx) (CD Cali, March 8, 2013); Parker v. Google, 422 F. Supp. 2d 492 (ED Pa. 2006); Ellison v. Robertson, 357 F. 3d 1072 (9th Cir. 2004); ALS Scan v. Remarq Communities, 239 F. 3d 619 (4th Cir. 2001). []
  34. Perfect 10 v. Megaupload, 2011 WL 3203117 (S.D. Cal.). []
  35. See, e.g., Sony, supra. []
  36. Morton White, Causation in the Law by H. L. A. Hart; A. M. Honoré Review, 60 Columbia Law Review 1058, 1059 (1960). []
  37. See In re Cellco, supra.; Cybernet, supra.; Sony, supra. []
  38. E.g., Leonard v. Stemtech Health Sciences, Inc., CV 08-67-LPS-CJB, 2013 WL 5288266 (D. Del. Sept. 19, 2013), though infringing photo was copied onto a website defendant owned, hosted, and directly profited from, the photo was copied by independent distributor onto an area of the website the defendant did not control. []
  39. Union Pump Co. v. Allbritton, 898 SW 2d 773, 775-76 (Texas 1995). []
  40. Federal Civil Jury Instructions of the Seventh Circuit (2009). []
  41. SOS, Inc. v. Payday, Inc., 886 F. 2d 1081, 1085 n.3 (9th Cir. 1989); Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Webbworld, Inc., 991 F. Supp. 543, 550-51 (ND Tx 1997), “‘Copying’ is a judicial shorthand for the infringement of any of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights.” []
  42. See House Report No. 94-1476 (1976), “Under the definitions of “perform,” “display,” “publicly,” and “transmit” in section 101, the concepts of public performance and public display cover not only the initial rendition or showing, but also any further act by which that rendition or showing is transmitted or communicated to the public. Thus, for example: a singer is performing when he or she sings a song; a broadcasting network is performing when it transmits his or her performance (whether simultaneously or from records); a local broadcaster is performing when it transmits the network broadcast; a cable television system is performing when it retransmits the broadcast to its subscribers; and any individual is performing whenever he or she plays a phonorecord embodying the performance or communicates the performance by turning on a receiving set.” []
  43. See also Giganews: “Plaintiff ‘s allegations regarding Defendants’ knowledge of the pirated content on its servers do not salvage Plaintiff’s direct infringement claim. As the Netcom court pointed out, “knowledge” is not a required element of direct infringement (although it is a required element for contributory infringement).” []

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Last week the Supreme Court received the first round of amicus briefs in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo. Individuals and organizations who support the broadcasters’ position (or support neither party) filed nearly 20 briefs; in a few weeks we’ll see Aereo’s opening brief, followed a week later by amici in support of Aereo, setting the stage for oral arguments in front of the Court on April 22.

The issue in front of the Court should be familiar by now to anyone following the case, but to reiterate, it is this: does Aereo violate a copyright owner’s exclusive right to perform a work publicly?

In a series of posts, I broke down this inquiry into its component parts. First, I asked, “what is to the public“? Then I asked “what is a performance“?

Much ink has been spilled over how the Supreme Court should rule in Aereo, and my posts, concluding that, yes, Aereo does perform to the public, were no exception. The primary argument in favor of Aereo is that it is Aereo’s customers, not Aereo itself, engaged in performing broadcast television to users.

So it would seem that one question remains as to Aereo’s ultimate liability: who is the “performer”? This question is pivotal. If, as I have argued, we interpret “to the public” as requiring a look at the relationship between performer and audience, then a conclusion that it is the user engaged in performing would mean the performance is private, since a user-to-user performance is undoubtedly private. But if Aereo is the performer, the opposite conclusion seems required, since the relationship between Aereo, Inc. and its paying subscribers is very likely a public one. In other words, the latter involves direct liability for copyright infringement while the former does not.

But rather than attempting to answer this question here and now, I want to reframe it. Specifically, I want to suggest that the question of who “performs” a work is not a copyright question.

That does not mean it is any less valid of a question. It just means it is a question involving legal doctrines besides copyright law. If the argument, for example, is that Aereo is merely renting equipment to users to engage in otherwise legal actions, than the question is whether this is actually what is happening (and not just legal sleight of hand) and whether the agreement between Aereo and the user is sufficient to shift liability from Aereo onto the user. This involves questions of contract and tort rather than copyright.

Indeed, tort law provides a diverse array of doctrines that can be called upon to answer who a “performer” is: ideas such as proximate causation, agency, and perhaps even bailment.

The answer does not, however, come from the Copyright Act.

What is the import of this claim? For one, it means that it is not necessary to torture the text of the Copyright Act to reach a conclusion that it is a user of Aereo rather than Aereo who is performing a work. The text of the Transmit Clause is straightfoward: one performs a work publicly if they transmit a performance of the work to the public, by means of any device or process. Only the most baffling interpretations can make “by means of any device or process” mean “by means of any device or process… except 1,000 antennas” or “by means of any device or process… except 10,000 antennas.”

It also means the legislative history of the public performance provisions in the 1976 Copyright Act are of no help. In fact, the legislative history compels the conclusion that the Copyright Act is the wrong place to turn to for answering who the “performer” is.

In 1965, the Register of Copyrights released a report on the current version of the Copyright Act, one in which the public performance provisions were substantially the same as those that would eventually become law. In the report, the Register noted that Congress “adopted the approach, like that taken in foreign laws, of stating the public performance right in broad terms in section 106, and of providing the specific exemptions for educational and other nonprofit uses in section 109.”1

It signals this breadth through its explanations of the definition for performances in the draft revision:

A work may be performed ”either directly or by means of any device or process,” and these devices or processes would encompass sound or visual reproduction equipment of all kinds, amplifying systems, radio and television transmitting and receiving apparatus, electronic retrieval devices, and a host of other techniques, undoubtedly including some not invented yet.2

It goes on to state that the language adopted was intended to cover all commercial providers of copyrighted broadcasts except for explicitly provided exceptions:

The bill does not exempt community antennas and other commercial systems that retransmit broadcasts of copyrighted material to the public. It would, however, under section 109(5), exempt operators of nonprofit “boosters” or “translators” who retransmit, “without altering or adding to the content of the original transmission, without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage, and without charge to the recipients.”

So there is no mistake, the report explains just how broadly the language of the Copyright Act should be read, including the note that a specific exception for “common carriers” was considered and rejected.

We have therefore adopted the phrase “transmit or otherwise communicate * * * to the public” to cover every method by which the images or sounds comprising a performance or exhibition can be picked up and conveyed to the public. This concept would include, among other things: direct amplification (as over a loud speaker system); transmission over wires or other connections; wireless transmission by the originating transmitter and by any other transmitter who picks up his signals and passes them on; and further transmission, over wires, of a wireless transmission. Likewise, although probably also covered under clause (A), it would include performances in public places resulting from the playing of records on jukeboxes and other sound reproducing equipment and from the reception of wired or wireless transmissions.

In effect, the definition is intended to cover every transmission, retransmission, or other communication of a performance which reaches “the public.” The 1964 bill contained language exempting transmissions by someone acting, “as a common carrier,” the thought being that a corporation merely leasing wires or equipment for the intermediate transmission of signals to other transmitters, rather than to the public, should not be subjected to liability to the copyright owner. It was pointed out that the concept of “common carrier” might be extended unjustifiably to some commercial transmitters to the public, and we have therefore dropped this exception as ill-advised. We are convinced that purely intermediate transmissions should be exempt, but that an express exemption is not necessary to exclude them.

There is further evidence that Congress did not intend for the language of the public performance provisions to explain the distinction between cable services and antenna rental services. For example, following the district court’s decision in United Artists Television v. Fortnightly Corporation,3 which found the operator of a community antenna television service liable for publicly performing copyrighted works, a bill was introduced that would establish three categories of liability: CATV operators would not be liable for providing access to broadcasts within the broadcast area. Liability would attach where a CATV operator provided access to distant broadcast signals, and a reasonable license fee would be required where CATV services brought outside signals when local viewers were not “adequately served” by three major networks. CATV operators rejected this approach.4

The Supreme Court eventually reversed in Fortnightly, holding that a CATV operator does not perform television broadcasts; instead, its “basic function the equipment serves is little different from that served by the equipment generally furnished by a television viewer.”5 So we know that the idea of a distinction between a service performing a work publicly and a service allowing an individual to perform a work privately was on Congress’s radar during the revision process. But it declined to insert any language that could potentially mediate that distinction. Rather, the public performance provisions would include all third parties, and “cover every transmission, retransmission, or other communication of a performance which reaches ”the public,” no matter how closely they resemble a mere provider of equipment for a user.6

To say otherwise, to suggest that language in the Copyright Act itself guides us to distinguish between a transmitter of performances and a mere passive device or process is supported by zero evidence. To say, after this clear and convincing evidence, that Congress drafted statutory language that would distinguish between companies performing a work to the public and companies merely providing facilities allowing members of the public to perform a work to themselves is untenable. Nothing in the final text of the provisions indicates that Congress intended this distinction, and nothing in the legislative history suggests that it buried such a distinction in the language, to await a clever lawyer to tease it out.

And this isn’t the case that Congress wasn’t aware of an argument that a service could argue it is just doing what users could otherwise do themselves. It heard that argument repeatedly.

Congress heard the argument that CATV equipment was “not owned by the CATV system but by the system’s individual subscribers.”7 Congress heard CATV operators argue that “Because CATV systems are functionally identical to rooftop antennas on private homes, broadcasters deserve no greater exclusivity than they would obtain if everyone chose to install a private rooftop antenna adequate to receive the available signals.”8 Congress heard that “CATV is not a passive rooftop or ‘rabbit-ear’ antenna.”9 CATV proponents argued to Congress that CATV is simply an “aid in reception of television broadcast signals”.10

And, driving home the point that this is not an issue of the Copyright Act being inadequate to deal with current technological challenges, the president of the NCTA argued nearly half a century ago that “The conventional way in which a viewer obtains programs is by buying his own set, installing his own antenna, and then enjoying the program. But the viewer may resort to other methods to enjoy his local station. If, instead of buying his set outright, the viewer chose to rent it from a company which agreed to keep it in good condition, there would be no reason in policy or logic why this act should bring into play different copyright consequences from those which obtain when the viewer owns his set outright.”11

Congress explicitly rejected—decades ago—the arguments Aereo and its supporters are currently making. As noted above, it ultimately settled on a broad statute that does not make the distinctions CATV proponents sought.

But, before consumer electronic advocates’ heads explode, I want to reiterate that this does not mean Aereo or similar services are necessarily liable for copyright infringement. It merely means that any possible salvation does not lie in the Copyright Act but in some other legal doctrine, whether through contract, tort, or otherwise.

General copyright principles would certainly inform the application of these legal doctrines, and the statutory text may serve as a guide, but the language itself does not answer the question of who is the “performer”.

So the Supreme Court’s job is clear. Assuming that Aereo is the performer, since that issue is not in front of the Court,12 it plainly is performing “to the public” because it is transmitting works using any device or process to individual subscribers that it has a public relationship with.

(I personally think proximate causation can play a critical role in the distinction discussed here and hope to explore this more fully in a future post.)

Thanks to Devlin Hartline for valuable feedback during the drafting process!


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Supplementary Register’s Report on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law (1965), []
  2. Id. []
  3. 255 F. Supp. 177 (SDNY 1966). []
  4. Judith E. Ciani, CATV and Copyright Infringement, 10 B.C.L. Rev. 459, 471-72 (1969). []
  5. Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 US 390 (1968). []
  6. Supplementary Report, supra. []
  7. Statement of Louis Nizer, representing producers and distributors of copyrighted television film programs, Copyright Law Revision, Hearings before Subcommittee No. 3, pg. 1359, Serial No. 8 (1966). []
  8. Id. at 1298. []
  9. Statement of Arthur B. Krim, Hearings before Senate Judiciary IP Subcommittee on S.1006 at 170 (1966). []
  10. Fn. 7 at 1330. []
  11. Id. at 103. []
  12. And was not foreclosed by Cablevision in 2008. Cartoon Network LP v. CSC Holdings, 536 F. 3d 121, 134 (2nd Cir. 2008) (“We need not address Cablevision’s” argument “that (1) the RS-DVR customer, rather than Cablevision, does the transmitting and thus the performing”). []

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Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

With Aereo’s upcoming oral argument before the Supreme Court, I’ve got tens of thousands of tiny antennae on the mind. The novelty—and, of course, the absurdity—of Aereo’s service makes it one of the more interesting copyright puzzles. Most of the issues with Aereo are repetitive of the issues with Cablevision, and debate abounds over whether the number of source copies matters and whether multiple transmissions should be aggregated. I’ve come to view these issues as red herrings. But there’s another red herring that I’d rather discuss here, and that’s whether a decision against Aereo would be the death knell to the cloud. After all, performances are transmitted from Aereo’s service to members of the public just like they are from some cloud computing services. So why shouldn’t we worry?

In my last post about Aereo, I unconcernedly claimed: “This case isn’t about the future of cloud computing companies—those services are protected by the DMCA.” Why we shouldn’t worry about the cloud is certainly in large part answered by the DMCA, but I want to take it a step deeper and show that, even without the DMCA, some cloud computing companies would not incur liability when content is transmitted from their services to members of the public. The key to understanding why such cloud computing companies are not infringers is the key to understanding why Aereo is an infringer, and this turns on application of the volitional conduct test—a test codified in DMCA, but which is applicable in any context where the Transmit Clause is implicated. The volitional conduct test provides us with a way to separate the Aereo-like goats from the cloud computing sheep.

Under the Transmit Clause, it is a public performance to (1) transmit a performance of a work (2) to the public.1 There is no doubt that a performance of a work is being transmitted with Aereo’s service, so (1) is not at issue. The issue is whether this transmission is “to the public,” which is a term of art. Whether a transmission is “to the public” does not depend on the place to which it is sent, and a transmission to a private place can be “to the public” nonetheless. What makes it “to the public” is the relationship between the sender and the receiver, and this relationship, naturally, depends on the identity of each party. When the relationship between the sender and the receiver is a public one, the transmission is a public performance. And when the relationship between the sender and the receiver is a private one, the transmission is a private performance.

In Aereo,2 the Second Circuit focused on the receiver for each transmission, concluding that when there is a one-to-one relationship between the source copy and the receiver, the performance is private—even if we presume that Aereo is the sender. I think this makes no sense. If Aereo is the sender and the subscriber is the receiver, then that relationship is a public one and the transmission is a public performance. The Second Circuit’s reliance on there being a unique source copy for each receiver was misplaced, for the Transmit Clause cares only about who is transmitting to whom. It says nothing about a source copy—and in fact no source copy is even needed to publicly perform via transmission.3 The issue is simply who is directly causing the transmission to occur. Until we know who is transmitting to the receiver, that is, until we identify the sender, we can’t know whether the relationship between the sender and the receiver is a public one such that it’s “to the public.”

Without fair use or the DMCA to fall back on, the Aereo appeal squarely presents the issue of who is directly causing the transmission when a performance of a work is transmitted from Aereo’s service to the subscriber. In other words, the case boils down to who is the direct performer in this scenario. If the subscriber is the direct performer, then the performance is private since the sender and the receiver are the same party and the transmission therefore is not “to the public.” If Aereo is the direct performer, then the performance is public since the relationship between the sender and the receiver is a public one and the transmission therefore is “to the public.” And whether Aereo is the direct performer turns on the volitional conduct test: Is Aereo’s volitional conduct sufficient such that it directly causes the transmission? I think the answer is clearly “yes,” and how I get there is by utilizing the only bright-line rule under the volitional conduct test.

The genesis of the volitional conduct test is the famous Netcom decision,4 penned in 1995 by District Judge Ronald M. Whyte of the Northern District of California. Pre-DMCA, Judge Whyte was faced with deciding the liability of Netcom, an internet service provider, for infringement taking place utilizing its system. Critically, “Netcom was not itself the source of any of the infringing materials on its system,”5 and the issue was whether it could be a direct infringer of the reproduction right nonetheless. Judge Whyte held that it could not: “Although copyright is a strict liability statute, there should still be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party.”6 Since “such copies are uploaded by an infringing user,” Judge Whyte continued, Netcom’s actions were not a direct infringement of the reproduction right.7

Judge Whyte acknowledged that copyright infringement is a strict liability tort, meaning that neither knowledge nor intent to infringe need be shown. However, strictly applying that strict liability to reproductions occurring in cyberspace “would hold the entire Internet liable for activities that cannot reasonably be deterred.”8 Grounded in the policy argument that “it does not make sense to adopt a rule that could lead to the liability of countless parties whose role in the infringement is nothing more than setting up and operating a system that is necessary for the functioning of the Internet,” Judge Whyte proposed a dichotomy between a passive conduit, which provides only dumb pipes used by others to copy, and an active participant, which takes affirmative steps to bring about the copying.9 And central to Judge Whyte’s holding that Netcom was a passive conduit was the fact that it was the users who uploaded the content to Netcom’s service in the first place.

The key to understanding Netcom and its progeny is to recognize that the volitional conduct test is not used to determine whether a service provider should be held directly liable in the first place. Instead, a service provider seeks Netcom immunity because, without it, it would otherwise be a direct infringer. The volitional conduct test is perhaps best understood in terms of causation: Even though, because of strict liability, every service provider that is the cause-in-fact of the copying is thereby a direct infringer, certain service providers are nevertheless not directly liable for the copying because their actions are sufficiently remote. Perhaps the leading iteration of the volitional conduct test comes from the Fourth Circuit in CoStar:

[T]o establish direct liability under §§ 501 and 106 of the Act, something more must be shown than mere ownership of a machine used by others to make illegal copies. There must be actual infringing conduct with a nexus sufficiently close and causal to the illegal copying that one could conclude that the machine owner himself trespassed on the exclusive domain of the copyright owner.10

The volitional conduct test has also been adopted by the Second and Ninth Circuits,11 as well as by several district courts.12 In fact, Congress baked Netcom immunity under the volitional conduct test right into the DMCA.13 For example, Section 512(c) grants a qualifying service provider immunity “for infringement of copyright by reason of the storage at the direction of a user of material that resides on a system or network controlled or operated by or for the service provider.”14 The Second Circuit in YouTube and the Ninth Circuit in Shelter Capital read this language very broadly, finding that even transcoding and indexing user-submitted content to facilitate its public playback was protected by the safe harbor.15 While Section 512(c) protects a service provider for many automated acts that occur after a user uploads content to the service, the one thing it doesn’t provide immunity for is content supplied by the service provider itself.

How the volitional conduct test operates in the cloud is demonstrated in the Hotfile case, where the district court stated:

Thus, the law is clear that Hotfile and [the owner] are not liable for direct copyright infringement because they own and manage internet facilities that allow others to upload and download copyrighted material. . . . [T]he website merely allows users to upload and download copyrighted material without volitional conduct from Hotfile or [the owner]. . . . [N]othing in the complaint alleges that Hotfile or [the owner] took direct, volitional steps to violate the plaintiffs’ infringement. There are no allegations, say, that Hotfile uploaded copyrighted material. Therefore, under the great weight of authority, the plaintiffs have failed to allege direct copyright infringement.16

Because neither Hotfile nor the owner had engaged in sufficient volitional conduct, by, for example, uploading the infringing content at issue, the district court found that they could not be held directly liable for the infringement that occurred. Contrasted with Hotfile is Tasini,17 where the Supreme Court held that a database provider was directly liable for violating the public distribution right for content that it had supplied and made available as part of its publicly-accessible database. Because the database provider had supplied the infringing content at issue, this was a sufficient condition for finding that it was a direct infringer.

The import of all this is that where the service provider itself supplies the infringing content that is publicly distributed, displayed, or performed, that service provider can claim neither Netcom immunity nor DMCA immunity. Supplying the infringing content is sufficient for finding that the service provider has directly caused the infringement to occur—but it’s not necessary for such a finding. In other words, if the service provider itself supplies the infringing content, then it is a direct infringer. But sometimes the service provider can also be a direct infringer even if it did not supply the infringing content. This happens when the service provider engages in other volitional conduct “with a nexus sufficiently close and causal to the illegal copying,” to borrow the Fourth Circuit’s phrase, such that it is not only the factual cause of the copying, but the legal cause as well.

For example, in Megaupload, the district court found that the plaintiff had alleged that Kim Dotcom’s infamous website “serves as more than a passive conduit, and more than a mere ‘file storage’ company.”18 Several facts, including Megaupload’s reward program where it paid users to upload content, meant that Megaupload had possibly crossed the line from being a passive conduit to being an active participant in the infringement. Similarly, in Usenet, the district court found that the bulletin board service was “not merely a ‘passive conduit’ that facilitates the exchange of content between users who upload infringing content and users who download such content.”19 The “active measures” and “active steps” engaged in by the defendants “transformed [them] from passive providers of a space in which infringing activities happened to occur to active participants in the process of copyright infringement.”20

Like all proximate causation analysis, the volitional conduct test involves both art and science, and courts engaging in it typically juggle somewhat-vague concepts of foreseeability and temporality with normative decisions about social justice.21 As Dean William Prosser, author of Prosser on Torts and Reporter for the Restatement (Second) of Torts, put it, proximate causation is “our more or less inadequately expressed ideas of what justice demands.”22 Exactly how much volitional conduct it takes for a service provider to cross the line from passive conduit to active participant, no one can say. The analysis is, necessarily, somewhat arbitrary. The only bright-line criteria that exists under the volitional conduct test is that of who supplies the infringing content. When it’s the service provider itself, the volitional conduct on the part of the service provider is sufficient to find it directly liable.

This past week, District Judge Dale A. Kimball of the District of Utah found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits against Aereo because it “provid[es] paying customers with retransmission of copyrighted works.” And this gets to the heart of why Aereo should lose before the Supreme Court. Aereo has crossed the line from being a passive conduit to being an active participant because it supplies the very content that is available using its service. Presumably, this is at least part of the reason why Aereo does not argue that Section 512(c) gives it DMCA immunity. Aereo cannot maintain that the content residing on its service is “by reason of the storage at the direction of a user” because the content comes from Aereo itself. The subscriber doesn’t go to Aereo to upload the content he already has to the cloud; the subscriber goes to Aereo to get the content he wants but doesn’t yet have—content which Aereo itself supplies.

The reason why Aereo, and not the subscriber, is the direct performer is simple. Because of copyright’s strict liability nature, every party that is the cause-in-fact of the copying is a direct infringer unless some other doctrine absolves that party from direct liability. The volitional conduct test uses a proximate causation analysis to determine whether a party’s actions are sufficiently remote such that it should not be held directly liable for the infringement. While the metes and bounds of the volitional conduct test are imprecise, to say the least, there is one bright-line rule: When the service provider itself supplies the very content at issue, that service provider’s actions can never be sufficiently remote to absolve it of direct liability. Because Aereo itself supplies the very content at issue—by implementing and making available its system of tens of thousands of tiny antennae that receive and retransmit performances—Aereo is the identity of the sender. And since the relationship between the sender (Aereo) and the receiver (the subscriber) is a public one, the transmission is a public performance.

The argument that it is Aereo’s subscriber, and not Aereo itself, who is the sender is untenable. The Transmit Clause was enacted to capture any service doing exactly what Aereo does, namely, retransmitting a broadcast to the public by any means possible. The petitioners in Aereo do a great job of traversing the history of the Transmit Clause in their opening brief before the Supreme Court, but the short version is this: The Supreme Court had held in a pair of cases that a community antenna television system or a cable system that captured an over-the-air broadcast and retransmitted it to the public was not engaged in a public performance.23 Congress enacted the Transmit Clause to legislatively overrule these two cases, and the words Congress chose, namely, “any device or process” used to transmit a performance, leave no doubt that its concern was with the function of the device or process utilized to make the transmission—not the underlying technical details of the device or process itself.24

Aereo’s argument boils down to it claiming that, even though the Transmit Clause on its face applies to “any device or process” that transmits a performance to the public, its particular device or process is somehow so special under-the-hood that the Transmit Clause doesn’t reach it. The problem with this argument is that the Transmit Clause means what it says, and it’s no answer to say that Aereo is simply doing for a subscriber what he could do for himself. This was the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the two cases the Transmit Clause was enacted to overrule. And even if we accept the argument that Aereo’s subscribers are really lessees of its equipment, the outcome is the same. The test is volitional conduct, and the conduct that matters is the conduct that Aereo itself has actually engaged in. If Aereo’s own actions are sufficient to find it directly liable absent any lease relationship, then its own actions are necessarily sufficient to find it directly liable even with the lease relationship. Because unless there is also some agency relationship between Aereo and its subscriber—for example, if Aereo were the subscriber’s employee—then Aereo’s own actions are only attributable to itself.

Cloud computing companies need not be worried about the outcome of the Aereo appeal because these service providers will continue to be protected by Netcom immunity under the volitional conduct test or by DMCA immunity. Assuming such service providers are protected by the DMCA, there’s an expansive amount of volitional conduct they can engage in without losing their safe harbor. How much volitional conduct they can engage in without losing Netcom immunity is less clear, but what is clear is that when a service provider itself supplies the very content at issue, there is no immunity under either the volitional conduct test or the DMCA. If Aereo loses before the Supreme Court, as I believe they should, it won’t negatively affect cloud computing companies because there is no reason for the Court to look any further than the fact that Aereo supplies the very content at issue. If anything, the Court’s decision will further cement into place the one bright-line rule that there is with the volitional conduct test, and this clarity in the law will redound to the cloud.

Special thanks to Terry Hart and Jonathan Greenfield for their valuable feedback in drafting this post.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline


  1. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014) (“To perform or display a work ‘publicly’ means– (1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or (2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times. *** To ‘transmit’ a performance or display is to communicate it by any device or process whereby images or sounds are received beyond the place from which they are sent.”). []
  2. See WNET, Thirteen v. Aereo, Inc., 712 F.3d 676 (2d Cir. 2013). []
  3. For example, live performances and television broadcasts can be captured and transmitted to the public even though the sender possesses no source copy. []
  4. See Religious Tech. Ctr. v. Netcom On-Line Commc’n Servs., Inc., 907 F.Supp. 1361 (N.D. Cal. 1995). []
  5. Id. at 1367. []
  6. Id. at 1370. []
  7. Id. at 1371. []
  8. Id. at 1372. []
  9. Id. []
  10. CoStar Grp., Inc. v. LoopNet, Inc., 373 F.3d 544, 550 (4th Cir. 2004). []
  11. See Cartoon Network LP, LLLP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121 (2d Cir. 2008); Fox Broad. Co., Inc. v. Dish Network L.L.C., Case No. 12-cv-57048, 2014 WL 260572 (9th Cir. Jan. 24, 2014). []
  12. See, e.g., Field v. Google Inc., 412 F.Supp.2d 1106 (D. Nev. 2006); Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Webbworld, Inc., 991 F.Supp. 543 (N.D. Tex. 1997); Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Russ Hardenburgh, Inc., 982 F.Supp. 503 (N.D. Ohio 1997); Disney Enterprises, Inc. v. Hotfile Corp., 798 F.Supp.2d 1303 (S.D. Fla. 2011). []
  13. See, e.g., H.R. Rep. 105-551(I), at *11 (“As to direct infringement, liability is ruled out for passive, automatic acts engaged in through a technological process initiated by another. Thus, the bill essentially codifies the result in the leading and most thoughtful judicial decision to date: Religious Technology Center v. Netcom On-line Communications Services, Inc., 907 F. Supp. 1361 (N.D. Cal. 1995).”); ALS Scan, Inc. v. RemarQ Communities, Inc., 239 F.3d 619, 622 (4th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ultimate conclusion on this point is controlled by Congress’ codification of the Netcom principles in Title II of the DMCA.”). []
  14. 17 U.S.C.A. § 512(c) (West 2014). []
  15. See Viacom Int’l, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., 676 F.3d 19, 39 (2d Cir. 2012); UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Shelter Capital Partners LLC, 718 F.3d 1006, 1016 (9th Cir. 2013). []
  16. Disney Enterprises, Inc. v. Hotfile Corp., 798 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1308 (S.D. Fla. 2011) (internal citations and paragraph break omitted). []
  17. New York Times Co., Inc. v. Tasini, 533 U.S. 483 (2001). []
  18. Perfect 10, Inc. v. Megaupload Ltd., Case No. 11-cv-0191, 2011 WL 3203117, at *4 (S.D. Cal. July 27, 2011). vacated pursuant to settlement, 2011 WL 10618723 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 11, 2011). []
  19. Arista Records LLC v., Inc., 633 F.Supp.2d 124, 149 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). []
  20. Id. (internal quotations, citations, and brackets omitted). []
  21. See Mark Bartholomew & Patrick F. McArdle, Causing Infringement, 64 Vand. L. Rev. 675, 703 (2011). []
  22. Id. (internal quotations and footnote omitted). []
  23. See Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S. 390 (1968); Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broad. Sys., Inc., 415 U.S. 394 (1974). []
  24. See, e.g., H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at *63 (1976) (A performance occurs “either directly or by means of any device or process, including . . . any sort of transmitting apparatus, any type of electronic retrieval system, and any other techniques and systems not yet in use or even invented.”); id. at *64 (“The definition of ‘transmit’ . . . is broad enough to include all conceivable forms and combinations of wires and wireless communications media, including but by no means limited to radio and television broadcasting as we know them. Each and every method by which the images or sounds comprising a performance . . . are picked up and conveyed is a ‘transmission,’ and if the transmission reaches the public in [an]y form, the case comes within the scope of clause[] (4) . . . of section 106.”). []

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On January 24th, the Ninth Circuit denied a petition for rehearing en banc in Fox Broadcasting v. Dish Networks. The decision was, however, amended slightly from the original opinion, released last July.

Fox Broadcasting v. Dish Network involved satellite television provider Dish’s Hopper, a set-top device with digital video recording (DVR) and video on demand (VOD) capabilities. Relevant to this discussion, Dish began providing its Hopper customers with a service called “PrimeTime Anytime” (PTAT). PTAT, when enabled, automatically recorded all primetime (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) programming from the four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox). The recordings are saved locally on a customer’s Hopper for a predetermined amount of time (typically 8 days), after which they are automatically deleted.

Fox sued for copyright infringement, alleging, in part, that Dish directly infringed its reproduction right when it made PTAT copies of Fox television programs. Fox sought a preliminary injunction

The District Court in Dish concluded that “at this stage of the proceedings, the Court is not satisfied that PTAT has crossed over the line that leads to direct liability. Despite Dish’s involvement in the copying process, the fact remains that the user, not Dish, must take the initial step of enabling PTAT after deciding that he or she wants to initiate the recording. The user, then, and not Dish, is the ‘most significant and important cause’ of the copy.” This, despite the fact that Dish designed, houses, and maintains the system that creates the copies. The court also did not consider the following facts indicative of causation:

  • “Dish decides which networks are available on PTAT and has defaulted the PTAT settings to record all four networks.”
  • “Dish also decides the length of time each copy is available for viewing: PTAT recordings are automatically deleted after expiration of a certain number of days, and a user may neither delete nor preserve the original PTAT copy before that time.”
  • “Dish decides when primetime recordings start and end each night, and it maintains the authority to modify those times according to the particular programs airing that night. Additionally, the user cannot stop a copy from being made during the copying process, but must wait until the recording ends before disabling the link.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed this result, saying “the district court did not err in holding that Fox did not establish a likelihood of success on its direct infringement claim.”

The “volitional conduct” test relied upon by both courts is idiosyncratic within the larger contours of tort law, and neither court explains why it decided to extend the test so far beyond previous applications. I’ve detailed some criticisms of the opinion when the original decision was released last summer. But today I want to head overseas and look at a recent case where a court got it right.

TV Now

In 2012, an Australian court considered a very similar question. Telecom service provider Optus created “TV Now”, a service that enables customers to watch and record television broadcasts through a mobile device or personal computer. It was sued by a group of sports leagues for infringing its copyright in broadcast football games. The trial court judge held that Optus was not liable for infringement, relying in part on the US court decision in Cablevision and analogizing the service to a VCR or DVR. The decision was appealed.

The primary issue on appeal was “who ‘does’ the act of copying.” The appellate court said “the rival contenders are Optus, the subscriber, or Optus and the subscriber jointly.”

The court first considers the case that the copies were made solely by the subscriber. This approach is based on the premise that “Optus makes available to a subscriber a facility (a service) which enables the subscriber as and when he or she is so minded to use that facility to record broadcasts and later to view them. The copies that are made are the result of the subscriber’s use of the facility though the actual making of them requires Optus’ technology to function as it was designed to.” This is the position taken by the trial court judge, which said that to “make” a copy means “’to create’ by selecting what is to be recorded and by initiating a process utilising technology or equipment that records the broadcast”, a conception the court here said “robs the entirely automated copying process of any significance beyond that of being the vehicle which does the making of copies.”

Besides the analogy of Optus as a DVR operated by a subscriber, the trial court judge also saw the subscriber choosing to copy as “the last ‘volitional act’ in the sequence of acts leading to a copy being made and, for that reason, is significant in determining the identity of the maker.” The appellate court found these arguments less than compelling.

It noted too the trial court’s citation to Cablevision and the “volitional conduct concept.” However, the court viewed this concept as relevant only when there is a need to distinguish between direct and contributory liability—which is the case in U.S. jurisprudence but not under Australian law. The court added, referring to the academic criticism of the Cablevision decision, “It equally is not apparent to us why a person who designs and operates a wholly automated copying system ought as of course not be treated as a ‘maker’ of an infringing copy where the system itself is configured designedly so as to respond to a third party command to make that copy.”

The court concluded:

[W]e consider that Optus’ role in the making of a copy – ie in capturing the broadcast and then in embodying its images and sounds in the hard disk – is so pervasive that, even though entirely automated, it cannot be disregarded when the “person” who does the act of copying is to be identified. The system performs the very functions for which it was created by Optus. Even if one were to require volitional conduct proximate to the copying, Optus’ creating and keeping in constant readiness the TV Now system would satisfy that requirement. It should also be emphasised that the recording is made by reason of Optus’ system remaining “up” and available to implement the subscriber’s request at the time when its recording controllers poll the user database and receive a response indicating that a recording has been requested. What Optus actually does has –

a nexus sufficiently close and causal to the illegal copying that one could conclude that the machine owner … trespassed on the exclusive domain of the copyright owners: CoStar Group Inc v LoopNet Inc, 373 F3d 544 at 550 (4th Circ. 2004).

… Put shortly Optus is not merely making available its system to another who uses it to copy a broadcast. Rather it captures, copies, stores and makes available for reward, a programme for later viewing by another.

The real question for the court was whether Optus alone is liable or whether Optus and the subscriber are jointly liable. And here, the court indicated that the latter was most likely (since only Optus was named as a defendant, it was not strictly necessary for the court to resolve the question of the subscriber’s liability.) Said the court:

If one focussed not only upon the automated service which is held out as able to produce, and which actually produces, the copies but also on the causative agency that is responsible for the copies being made at all, the need for a more complex characterisation is suggested. The subscriber, by selecting the programme to be copied and by confirming that it is to be copied, can properly be said to be the person who instigates the copying. Yet it is Optus which effects it. Without the concerted actions of both there would be no copy made of a football match for the subscriber. Without the subscriber’s involvement, nothing would be created; without Optus’ involvement nothing would be copied. They have needed to act in concert to produce – they each have contributed to – a commonly desired outcome. The subscriber’s contributing acts were envisaged by the contractual terms and conditions. How they were to be done were indicated by the prompts given on the Optus TV Now TV guide page. The common design – the production of the selected programme for transmission to the subscriber – informed the solicitation and the taking of a subscription by the subscriber; it was immanent in the service to be provided.

The Australian court’s conclusion seems to hew more closely to general principles of tort law. Though the issue is settled, for now, in the Ninth Circuit, the Second Circuit is set to take up the issue soon in a parallel case involving the same Dish services and the other three major broadcast networks. Last October, the Southern District Court of New York denied a preliminary injunction against Dish in part because it agreed that the customer, not Dish, made the PTAT copies. That decision has been appealed, and oral arguments are set for next week.

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Previously, I began looking at the legal questions involved in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo, currently in front of the Supreme Court. The issue is whether Aereo, by providing a service that allows paying subscribers to watch broadcast television online, is publicly performing the copyrighted programming. The Second Circuit said it is not, based on its 2008 decision in Cablevision, which held that a transmission from a unique copy of a work is merely a private performance. Aereo, relying on the Cablevision decision, designed its service to purportedly assign a unique antenna to each individual subscriber.

The Copyright Act states that to perform a work publicly means, in relevant part, “to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance … of the work … to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance … receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”

The seemingly straightforward language belies some of the complexities that result, as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s agreement to hear Aereo. The approach I began in my previous post was to break the definition up into its separate components to understand it better: we have an actor (otherwise unnamed in the Act, we can refer to this as a “performer”), the action (“to transmit or otherwise communicate”), the object (“a performance of the work”), and a prepositional phrase (“to the public”).

To the public redux

I first took a look at what “to the public” means. Having had the opportunity to consider some of the feedback I’ve received on the article, I do want to make a slight modification to my definition.1

Originally, I wrote, “Any transmission from one person to another person who is not a family member or a close social acquaintance is a public performance.” The mention of family members and social acquaintances invites a level of specificity that I did not intend and distracts from the original purpose, which is to focus on the relationship between performer and audience. The legislative history of the Copyright Act says that under the second clause of the definition of “publicly”, performances during “routine meetings of business and governmental personnel” would be exempt “because they do not represent the gathering of a ‘substantial number of persons.’” I think the definition of “to the public” should similarly exempt such performances. It seems it would be more accurate to step back one level of abstraction; rather than referring to family members and social acquaintances, we should refer to “public” and “private” relationships. “Public” relationships are those that tend to be described as commercial, arms-length, or impersonal, and are strongly unidirectional, while “private” relationships tend to be described as familial, social, or collegial, and are much more reciprocal in nature.

What is a performance?

With that out of the way, we can turn to the next question in the analysis: what is a performance?

As with “to the public”, “performance” is not directly defined in the Copyright Act. But the Act does define the act of performing:

To “perform” a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.2

A performance right for dramatic compositions first appeared in US copyright law in 1856.3 Nondramatic musical works gained a performance right in 1897,4 and the 1909 Copyright Act, the last general revision before the current Copyright Act, provided performance rights for dramatic works, nondramatic literary works, and musical compositions. However, the current Copyright Act is the first to actually define “perform.”

Though the current Copyright Act did not become law until 1978, the language of the definition for performance is substantially the same as the definition included in the 1965 version of the bill.5 Following the introduction of that bill, the US Copyright Office released a report explaining the bill in detail. The Supplementary Report explained:

Under clause (1) of section 106(b), to ”perform” a work means ”to recite, render, play, dance, or act it.” This includes, for example, the reading aloud of a literary work, the singing or playing of music, the dancing of a choreographic work, and the acting out of a dramatic work or pantomime. A work may be performed ”either directly or by means of any device or process,” and these devices or processes would encompass sound or visual reproduction equipment of all kinds, amplifying systems, radio and television transmitting and receiving apparatus, electronic retrieval devices, and a host of other techniques, undoubtedly including some not invented yet. In the case of a motion picture, performance would mean ”to show its images or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.” It would be clear under this language that the purely aural performance of a motion picture sound track would constitute a performance of the motion picture; but, if the sounds on the soundtrack are reproduced on an authorized phonorecord, performance of the phonorecord would not be a performance of the motion picture.

The definition is relatively clear, and there are very few cases that have have been confronted with issues relating to its interpretation. One of the most relevant and thorough is US v. ASCAP.6 There, the court was tasked with considering whether a download of a music file was a performance. It looked at the “ordinary sense” of the words used in the Copyright Act’s definition of performance and concluded that performance requires “contemporaneous perceptibility.” Said the Second Circuit:

The downloads at issue in this appeal are not musical performances that are contemporaneously perceived by the listener. They are simply transfers of electronic files containing digital copies from an on-line server to a local hard drive. The downloaded songs are not performed in any perceptible manner during the transfers; the user must take some further action to play the songs after they are downloaded. Because the electronic download itself involves no recitation, rendering, or playing of the musical work encoded in the digital transmission, we hold that such a download is not a performance of that work, as defined by § 101.

In other words, “Transmittal without a performance,” said the Second Circuit, “is not a ‘public performance.’”

Transmission without performance

As support for this proposition, the court cited to Columbia Pictures Indus. v. Prof’l Real Estate Investors.7 In Columbia, the operators of a hotel resort offered guests the ability to rent movies on videocassette at the front desk, which they could watch on hotel-provided equipment in their own rooms. Plaintiffs sued, relying on the Third Circuit’s line of cases holding video store operators liable for public performance for operating private viewing booths on their premises.8 The Ninth Circuit, however, rejected this argument, holding that hotel rooms, though offered to the general public, become private spaces once they are rented.9 Thus, the operation of the equipment is not a performance in a public place.

Plaintiffs, however, also argued that the act of providing videocassettes to hotel guests implicated the Transmit Clause because the hotel was “otherwise communicat[ing]” the films. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument as well.

A plain reading of the transmit clause indicates that its purpose is to prohibit transmissions and other forms of broadcasting from one place to another without the copyright owner’s permission. The Act provides a definition of “transmit.” “To `transmit’ a performance or display is to communicate it by any device or process whereby images and sounds are received beyond the place from which they are sent.” According to the rule of ejusdem generis, the term “otherwise communicate” should be construed consistently with the term “transmit.”  Consequently, the “otherwise communicate” phrase must relate to a “process whereby images or sounds are received beyond the place from which they are sent.”

This reading is reinforced by the rest of the transmit clause which refers to the use of transmission devices or processes and the reception by the public of the performance. Devices must refer to transmission or communication devices, such as, perhaps, wires, radio towers, communication satellites, and coaxial cable, while reception of the performance by the public describes acts, such as listening to a radio, or watching — network, cable, or closed-circuit — television “beyond the place” of origination.

In sum, when one adds up the various segments of clause (2), one must conclude that under the transmit clause a public performance at least involves sending out some sort of signal via a device or process to be received by the public at a place beyond the place from which it is sent.

Nothing that La Mancha has done has violated this common sense construction of the transmit clause. While La Mancha has indeed provided the videodisc player, television screens, guest rooms, and makes videodiscs available in the lobby, we are not persuaded that any transmission of the kind contemplated by the statute occurs. If any transmission and reception occurs, it does so entirely within the guest room; it is certainly not received beyond the place from which it is sent. We are not persuaded that the term “otherwise communicate” can be read so broadly as to include the videodisc arrangements at La Mancha.

The reasoning of the Ninth Circuit here and the Second Circuit in ASCAP seems sound.10

To perform a work includes the transmission of a contemporaneously perceptible rendition of the work and is distinguished from the delivery of a work, including electronic delivery via transmission.11

The nature of a performance

A “performance of a work”, then, follows from this definition. If “performing” means rendering a work so that it is contemporaneously perceptible, a “performance of a work” is something that is contemporaneously perceptible. It is intangible—the Copyright Act refers to the tangible objects that embody works as copies. It is conceptual, an act rather than a thing.12 A performance is not the actor on stage, nor the sound waves emanating from a speaker, nor the photons transmitted across fiber optic data lines.13

It is also, perhaps, worth pointing out that it is not a performance that is embodied in a copy but a work.14 A performance is, by definition, incapable of embodiment; indeed, one does not even need a copy to perform a work, as is the case of a singer singing from memory.

And it is a conceptual unity. Consider two members in an audience. Neither will be perceiving the exact same thing, both because they are in different locations and because they themselves have variations in their eyes and ears that shape their personal perception. But conceptually there is only one performance of the work, and it is exactly the same for each audience member for copyright purposes.

The same holds true if a performance reaches its audience via transmission rather than via sound and light waves through the air. The Central District Court of California explains why in its decision enjoining FilmOnX (then “BarryDriller”):

The definition section sets forth what constitutes a public performance of a copyrighted work, and says that transmitting a performance to the public is a public performance. It does not require a “performance” of a performance. The Second Circuit buttressed its definition with a “cf.” to Buck v. Jewell-La Salle Realty Co., 283 U.S. 191, 196 (1931), which interpreted the 1909 Copyright Act’s provision of an exclusive right to publicly perform a musical composition and held that “the reception of a radio broadcast and its translation into audible sound” is a performance. But Buck, like Cablevision and this case, was concerned with a copyright in the work that was broadcast. The Supreme Court was not concerned about the “performance of the performance” – instead, it held that using a radio to perform the copyrighted song infringed the exclusive right to perform the song (not to perform the performance of the song).

The Transmit Clause explicitly recognizes this conceptual unity, saying a work is performed publicly when it is transmitted even if “the members of the public capable of receiving the performance … receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.” There could be thousands of separate transmissions, but there is still only the performance.

These may seem like inconsequential distinctions, but I think they undermine even more the Second Circuit’s notion that we can conceptually sever performances of the same work made by the same actor but from distinct copies. If the Transmit Clause spoke about the audience capable of receiving the physical transmission, as the Second Circuit says it does, then it would be possible to have multiple private performances since physical transmissions are discrete and separable. But it doesn’t—the Transmit Clause speaks about the audience capable of receiving the “performance of a work”, which remains a conceptual unity no matter how scattered the audience is.15

This interpretation of performance is, in my opinion, far more consonant with the statutory language and the ordinary use of the terms than the Second Circuit’s “unique copies” interpretation. It also means, as we’ll see in the next installment of this series, that most of the heavy lifting (at least for issues arising in the cloud computing context) occurs in the causation inquiry, i.e., “who is the performer”?


  1. I also flubbed when I referred to the three situations as being “mutually exclusive”. What I meant instead is that each situation excludes the previous. For example, a “place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered” could include a place open to the public, but that would make the previous clause redundant. Similarly, the last clause, transmission to the public, could include transmission to the public in a public place, or transmission to a place where a substantial number of persons is gathered, but that would make the previous two clauses redundant.

    I think it still follows that each situation is analyzed by exclusive means. We can presume (from the case law) that a “place open to the public” turns on the nature of the place. The “place where a substantial number of persons…” situation doesn’t turn on the nature of the place: if such a place were public, then the first situation covers it, while being a private place is insufficient to tell us if there are a substantial number of persons there. The same holds true for the last situation. The nature of the place is irrelevant (otherwise the first clause would be redundant), the size and relationship of the audience to each other is irrelevant (otherwise the second clause would be redundant). So what is there left to consider? The only thing I can come up with is the relationship between the performer and the audience. There could be others I am not aware of, but the relationship between performer and audience seems to provide a workable rule consistent with the Copyright Act’s structure and purpose. []

  2. 17 U.S.C. § 101. []
  3. Act of August 18, 1856, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., 11 Stat. 138. []
  4. Act of January 6, 1897, 44th Cong., 2d Sess., 29 Stat. 694. []
  5. H.R. 4347 and S. 1006, 89th Cong. []
  6. 627 F. 3d 64 (2nd Circuit 2010). []
  7. 866 F.2d 278, 282 (9th Cir. 1989). []
  8. Columbia Pictures Industries v. Redd Horne, 749 F.2d 154 (3d Cir.1984); Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. v. Aveco, Inc., 800 F.2d 59 (3d Cir.1986). []
  9. In support of this conclusion, the court relied on Fourth Amendment case law holding that hotel guests have constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures in hotel rooms. []
  10. And indeed, the Copyright Office’s 1965 Supplementary Report adds support.

    In general the concept of ”performance” must be distinguished sharply from the reproduction of copies on the one hand and the exhibition of copies on the other. It has been suggested that some of the internal operations of a computer, such as the scanning of a work to determine whether it contains material the user is seeking, is closely analogous to a ”performance.” We cannot agree, and for this reason we deleted from the definition of ”perform” the ambiguous term ”represent” which appeared in the 1964 bill. A computer may well ”perform” a work by running off a motion picture or playing a sound recording as part of its output, but its internal operations do not appear to us to fall within this concept. []

  11. Thus, uploading of a work to a web site, like downloading, is not a performance. []
  12. performance“, Merriam-Webster Online, “an activity (such as singing a song or acting in a play) that a person or group does to entertain an audience”. []
  13. “Very few people gather around their oscilloscopes to admire the sinusoidal waves of a television broadcast transmission. People are interested in watching the performance of the work.” Fox Television Stations v. BarryDriller, at 5 (C.D. Cali December 27, 2013). []
  14. Congress separately and outside the Copyright Office has made it a criminal offense to fix, without authorization, a live musical performance in a copy, thus underscoring this distinction. See 18 U.S.C. § 2319A. []
  15. Likewise, the Transmit Clause does not speak about “the potential audience of a particular ‘work’,” an alternative interpretation that the Second Circuit raises and dismisses. []

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Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Aereo appeal, I want to offer a simple explanation of the central legal issue before the Court. Much has been written about Aereo, but surprisingly little of it discusses the actual question the Court will decide. There is no doubt that Aereo is performing works as it retransmits them to its customers—that’s the very service that Aereo provides. The fundamental legal point the Court will determine is whether those performances are public or private. If public, they’re infringing, and if private, they’re not. Don’t let the argle-bargle being tossed out by bloggers and commentators distract you from this simple point.

Lots of arguments being offered by copyright critics are simply wrong. This case isn’t about the future of cloud computing companies—those services are protected by the DMCA. It isn’t about the length of any cord—no matter how long the cord is, the legal question is the same. Nor is it about Aereo simply doing something that a customer could do himself—the fact is that the customer isn’t doing it himself since Aereo is helping him do it. And it certainly isn’t about thwarting the progress of innovation—Aereo’s design is rather ridiculous, and it’s only “innovative” in that it retransmits broadcasts without paying any fees.

The Copyright Act gives copyright owners the exclusive right “to perform the copyrighted work publicly.”1 A work can be performed publicly in one of three ways. The first is by performing the work at a place open to the public or at a place where people outside of one’s family and friends congregate.2 An example of this would be putting on a play at a theater where tickets are available to the general public. The second is by transmitting a performance of the work to a place open to the public or to a place where people outside of one’s family and friends congregate.3 An example of this would be an opera house that transmits a performance to a movie theater where tickets are available to the general public.

The final way a work can be performed publicly is by transmitting a performance of the work to the public, by whatever means, whether the transmission of the performance can be received in one place or in many places and at one time or at many times. An example of this would be a broadcaster that transmits a television show to the general public over the airwaves. This last way of performing a work publicly is the one that’s at issue here with Aereo, and the operable statutory text comes from the last section of what is called the “Transmit Clause” in Section 101 of the Copyright Act. The outcome of the Aereo appeal will turn on how the Supreme Court parses this section of the Transmit Clause, which provides:

To perform . . . a work “publicly” means . . . to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance . . . of the work . . . to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance . . . receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.4

Note how this opens up four possibilities, all of which are public performances of a work. The transmission of a performance of a work to the public is a public performance if it is capable of being received: (1) in the same place and at the same time, (2) in separate places and at the same time, (3) in the same place and at different times, and (4) in separate places and at different times. These various possibilities are very important here with Aereo because they show that the same public performance of a work can occur via multiple asynchronous transmissions to the public. An example of this would be a work streamed from YouTube—a distinct transmission occurs whenever a member of the general public initiates playback, and despite the asynchronous transmissions, YouTube is publicly performing the work.

The Transmit Clause tells us that several distinct transmissions of a performance to the public, capable of being received in separate places and at different times, can be aggregated together as constituting one single public performance. The tricky part is figuring out when to aggregate multiple transmissions of a performance. And this gets us to the crux of the arguments in the Aereo appeal. The petitioners argue that Aereo’s distinct transmissions to its customers should be aggregated together as constituting part of the same performance, and this would mean the performance is public. Aereo, on the other hand, argues that its distinct transmissions to its customers should not be aggregated, and this would mean that there are several performances which are all private.

The reason Aereo argues that its distinct transmissions of a performance to its customers should not be aggregated is because they are made from unique copies of the underlying work. If YouTube uses only one source copy of a work to make multiple transmissions of a performance to the public, the case law tells us that those distinct transmissions should be aggregated together as constituting part of the same public performance. But Aereo argues that when each distinct transmission of a performance arises from a unique copy, this one-to-one relationship between the source copy and the customer means that multiple transmissions should not be aggregated. Whether there is any legal difference between using one source copy or multiple source copies for these transmissions of a performance forms the key question to be decided by the Supreme Court.

The notion that the private-public performance divide turns on whether the source of the transmissions comes from one copy or from multiple copies can be traced back to the influential Nimmer on Copyright treatise. In the famous Cablevision case,5 the Second Circuit adopted Nimmer’s view that a one-to-one relationship between the source copy and the customer means that multiple transmissions of a performance to the public should not be aggregated, thus making them separate private performances. According to the Cablevision court, when a unique copy is used to transmit a performance of a work to a customer, the only transmission that counts is that particular transmission—other transmissions made to other customers from other copies of the work are irrelevant.

But, as the petitioners in the Aereo appeal point out, this one source copy theory has no textual basis in the Transmit Clause. The Transmit Clause defines what it means to perform a work publicly, and the fact that the same public performance of a work can be received by the public in separate places and at different times tells us that multiple transmissions of a performance can constitute the same public performance. The Transmit Clause says nothing about the number of source copies used to make these multiple transmissions—the words “copy” or “copies” do not appear in the Transmit Clause. What matters is whether the public is capable of receiving the same performance of a work; the number of source copies used to transmit this performance is irrelevant.

The fault with the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Cablevision, and its subsequent application in Aereo,6 is in how it misinterprets the word “performance” in the following section of the Transmit Clause: “whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance . . . receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.” The Second Circuit replaced the word “performance” with the word “transmission,” and under this construction, the focus is on the audience of a particular transmission. But while a transmission of a performance is itself a performance, the words “transmission” and “performance” are not synonymous and interchangeable.

Thus, under the Second Circuit’s reading of the Transmit Clause, what matters is the potential audience of each distinct transmission. But the Transmit Clause tells us that the proper focus is on the audience of a performance, not the audience of any particular transmission of a performance. The problem with focusing on who is capable of receiving a particular transmission of a performance is that it reads the “different times” language out of the Transmit Clause. The Second Circuit realized as much, and that’s why it read into the Transmit Clause a distinction between one source copy and multiple source copies.7

Given the fact that the Transmit Clause makes no reference to the number of source copies used to generate multiple transmissions of a performance, and given the fact that the Transmit Clause by its very terms says to focus on who is capable of receiving a performance of a work—and not any particular transmission of a performance of a work—I think the Supreme Court should reverse the Second Circuit’s misapplication of the Transmit Clause in Aereo—and, by extension, in Cablevision. What matters is the fact that Aereo’s customers are capable of receiving the same performance of a work, despite the fact that this performance is comprised of distinct transmissions made from distinct copies.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline


  1. 17 U.S.C.A. § 106(4) (West 2014). []
  2. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014) (“To perform . . . a work ‘publicly’ means . . . to perform . . . it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”). []
  3. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014) (“To perform . . . a work ‘publicly’ means . . . to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance . . . of the work to a place specified by clause (1),” i.e. “a place open to the public or . . . any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”). []
  4. 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014). []
  5. See Cartoon Network LP, LLLP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121 (2d Cir. 2008). []
  6. See WNET, Thirteen v. Aereo, Inc., 712 F.3d 676 (2d Cir. 2013), petition for rehearing en banc denied, WNET, Thirteen v. Aereo, Inc., 722 F.3d 500 (2d Cir. 2013). []
  7. See Aereo, 712 F.3d at 688 n.11 (“The Cablevision court’s focus on the potential audience of each particular transmission would essentially read out the ‘different times’ language, since individuals will not typically receive the same transmission at different times. But Nimmer’s solution—aggregating private transmissions when those transmissions are generated from the same copy—provides a way to reconcile the ‘different times’ language of the Clause.”). []

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Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

The making available issue takes center stage today on Capitol Hill as the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet holds a hearing on “The Scope of Copyright Protection.” Copyright treatise author Professor David Nimmer argues for the making available right (testimony available here), and Tulane Law Professor Glynn S. Lunney, Jr., who just so happens to be my doctoral advisor, argues against it (testimony available here).

In two previous posts about the making available issue (available here and here), I suggested that the Nimmer treatise had changed its tune on whether merely making a work available constitutes distribution absent actual dissemination. After reading Professor Nimmer’s testimony, as well as reviewing Nimmer1 and the related journal article by Professor Peter S. Menell,2 I realize that I was wrong to say that Nimmer had flip-flopped on the making available question. Professor Nimmer never said that distribution requires evidence of actual dissemination in the first place.

Nimmer used to state: “Infringement of this right [i.e., the distribution right] requires an actual dissemination of either copies or phonorecords.”3 And Nimmer now states: “No consummated act of actual distribution need be demonstrated in order to implicate the copyright owner’s distribution right.”4 On its face, it appears that Nimmer has made a 180 degree turn on whether distribution requires actual dissemination. But the fault with this line of thinking is that, in the first statement, Nimmer was not saying that actual dissemination is an element of a plaintiff’s case-in-chief in proving unlawful distribution. It was instead contrasting distributions with performances.

Section 106(3) gives copyright owners the exclusive right “to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”5 Thus, the distribution right only covers “copies or phonorecords,” which are material objects in which works are fixed.6 Performances, by contrast, are ephemeral and unfixed.7 An unauthorized public performance of a work is not a distribution because nothing is fixed in a material object when one performs a work. Distributions involve tangible disseminations, while performances involve disseminations that are intangible.

It should be noted that, despite the “copies or phonorecords” requirement, distributions can occur electronically. This might at first seem strange, since sending someone a file via computer is not the same thing as handing someone a tangible copy. However, the argument that Section 106(3) does not reach electronic distributions is foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Tasini.8 Moreover, sending someone a work electronically does involve a tangible copy, because “[w]hat matters . . . is not whether a material object ‘changes hands,’ but whether, when the transaction is completed, the distributee has a material object.”9 The person the file is sent to has a copy fixed in a material object in whatever media he stores the file on, and this fulfills the “copies or phonorecords” requirement under Section 106(3).

Turning back to Professor Nimmer’s testimony, the origin of the earlier statement in Nimmer that infringement of the distribution right “requires an actual dissemination of either copies or phonorecords” stems from the treatise’s account of the Second Circuit’s opinion in Agee.10 In that case, the Second Circuit held that “merely transmitting a sound recording to the public on the airwaves does not constitute a ‘distribution.’”11 In reporting that holding in his treatise, Professor Nimmer stated:

Infringement of this right [i.e., the distribution right] requires an actual dissemination of either copies or phonorecords. A public performance of a work is not a publication and hence, even if unauthorized does not infringe the distribution right. Given that transmissions qualify as public performances, liability for that conduct lies outside the distribution right.12

That first sentence was later quoted out of context by many courts and taken to mean that evidence of actual dissemination is an element of an unlawful distribution claim. But, as Professor Menell explains, that is not the proper interpretation:

That language, written before the emergence of peer-to-peer technology, did not attempt to address its implications for copyright law. It merely contrasted distribution, which requires the dissemination of a copy, with performance, in which no copy need be disseminated. In context, the paragraph simply means that there is no violation of the distribution right when the substance of the copyrighted work has been intangibly dispersed via performance. To violate the distribution right, instead, tangible copies must be at issue. In the peer-to-peer context, uploading followed by downloading results in a “copy” resident on the second peer’s computer, meaning that the tangibility requirement has been met.13

When Nimmer stated that distribution “requires an actual dissemination of either copies or phonorecords,” it was making the point that a distribution involves a work fixed in a material object while a performance does not. That statement had nothing to do with what evidence is necessary to prove an unlawful distribution. Furthermore, the treatise’s current statement that “[n]o consummated act of actual distribution need be demonstrated” is not a reversal from the earlier statement in Nimmer. This newer assertion in the treatise is making an evidentiary point about what proof is needed to establish an unlawful distribution. Thus, Nimmer did not change its tune on the making available issue as I erroneously had stated in my two previous posts.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline


  1. See 2-8 Nimmer on Copyright § 8.11[C][1][a]-[b] (2013). []
  2. See Peter S. Menell, In Search of Copyright’s Lost Ark: Interpreting the Right to Distribute in the Internet Age, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 1, 20-21 (2011). []
  3. 2 Nimmer on Copyright § 8.11[A] (1996). []
  4. 2-8 Nimmer on Copyright § 8.11[B][4][d] (2013). []
  5. 17 U.S.C.A. § 106(3) (West 2014). []
  6. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014) (“‘Copies’ are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term ‘copies’ includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed. *** ‘Phonorecords’ are material objects in which sounds, other than those accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, are fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the sounds can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term ‘phonorecords’ includes the material object in which the sounds are first fixed.”). []
  7. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 101 (West 2014) (“To ‘perform’ a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.”). []
  8. See New York Times Co., Inc. v. Tasini, 533 U.S. 483, 498 (2001) (“LEXIS/NEXIS, by selling copies of the Articles through the NEXIS Database, ‘distribute copies’ of the Articles ‘to the public by sale,’ § 106(3)”); see also Perfect 10, Inc. v., Inc., 508 F.3d 1146, 1162 (9th Cir. 2007) (“The Supreme Court has indicated that in the electronic context, copies may be distributed electronically.”). []
  9. London-Sire Records, Inc. v. Doe 1, 542 F.Supp.2d 153, 174 (D. Mass. 2008). []
  10. Agee v. Paramount Commc’ns, Inc., 59 F.3d 317 (2d Cir. 1995). []
  11. Id. at 325. []
  12. 2 Nimmer on Copyright § 8.11[A] (1996). []
  13. Menell, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. at 21. []

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January 02, 2014 · · Comments Off

Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

Representing himself before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Andrew Diversey has managed to set a very interesting precedent (opinion available here or here). Senior Circuit Judge Terrence L. O’Brien, writing for a unanimous panel, held that when a library adds a work to its collection, indexes it, and makes it available to library patrons, a distribution is deemed to have occurred even if there is no evidence that any patron actually accessed the work.

The underlying brouhaha concerned Diversey’s dissertation as a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico. Against his express wishes, two copies of his dissertation had been made available to the public in the school’s libraries. Diversey sued the school and several administrators for violation of his exclusive distribution right under Section 106(3).

Diversey’s opening brief before the Tenth Circuit was remarkably well-researched and well-written for a pro se advocate, and he cited the Nimmer copyright treatise at length in arguing that merely making a work available constitutes distribution. I wrote about the fact that the Nimmer treatise has changed its tune on the making available issue in a previous post, and I predicted that, given how influential Nimmer is in the copyright realm, others would follow.1

And follow they did. Relying on the Fourth Circuit’s holding in Hotaling and the Nimmer treatise, the Court of Appeals reasoned:

As Diversey points out, § 106(3) explicitly protects the copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute copies by lending. See Hotaling, 118 F.3d at 203 (“When a public library adds a work to its collection, lists the work in its index or catalog system, and makes the work available to the borrowing or browsing public, it has completed all the steps necessary for distribution to the public.”); 2 Melville Nimmer & David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright § 8.11[B][4][d] at 8–154.10 (2013) (“No consummated act of actual distribution need be demonstrated … to implicate the copyright owner’s distribution right.”). . . . The essence of distribution in the library lending context is the work’s availability “to the borrowing or browsing public.” See Hotaling, 118 F.3d at 203.2

The Tenth Circuit rejected the appellees’ argument that Diversey had to prove actual dissemination to the public:

The appellees argue [that] merely listing the work in the libraries’ catalog information system does not violate Diversey’s distribution right. They say Diversey must (but has failed to) allege the libraries actually distributed an unauthorized copy to a member of the public. They cite Atlantic Recording Corp. v. Howell, 554 F.Supp.2d 976 (D. Ariz. 2008) to suggest “‘§ 106(3) is not violated unless the defendant has actually distributed an unauthorized copy of the work to a member of the public.’” (Appellee’s Br. 14 (quoting Howell, 554 F.Supp.2d at 883).)

Howell does reflect some dissensus, particularly among district courts, about the applicability of Hotaling’s holding to cases of Internet file-sharing. We need not delve into the file-sharing issue today. Hotaling, like this case, involves a public library making “the work available to the borrowing or browsing public.” Hotaling, 118 F.3d at 203. A patron could “visit the library and use the work.” See id. This is the essence of a violation of the copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute his work via lending. See 17 U.S.C. § 106(3); Peter S. Menell, In Search of Copyright’s Lost Ark: Interpreting the Right to Distribute in the Internet Age, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 1, 52–66 (2011) (analyzing the legislative history regarding the distribution right and concluding the requirement of actual distribution of an unauthorized copy is unwarranted).3

The applicability of the Hotaling holding to this case was pretty straightforward since both cases involved libraries lending out works to the general public. In Hotaling, the Fourth Circuit stated that distribution normally requires a showing that the work was actually disseminated to the public, but in the case of a library that keeps no records of public access to its works, it would unfairly prejudice the plaintiff to require any such proof of access.4 Thus, the evidentiary issue was central to the Fourth Circuit’s holding.

Interestingly, for the argument that distribution requires actual dissemination, the Hotaling court cited the Eighth Circuit’s opinion in National Car5 and the Nimmer treatise. National Car, in turn, cited only the Nimmer treatise for that proposition. So the notion in the Fourth and Eighth Circuits that distribution typically requires actual dissemination can be traced back to earlier versions of the Nimmer treatise. As I said in that previous post, it really is hard to exaggerate just how influential Nimmer is in copyright law.

Now we have the Tenth Circuit relying on the Nimmer treatise as well as the journal article by Professor Peter S. Menell, which was the impetus for the about-face on the making available issue in the Nimmer treatise.6 The Tenth Circuit here explicitly declined to discuss the applicability of its holding to the file-sharing context, but I think the answer there is fairly clear. Several district courts have declined to extend the holding of Hotaling to file-sharing cases, citing the general rule that actual dissemination is required and reasoning that the same evidentiary problem found in the library context may not obtain when it’s file-sharing.7

But the Tenth Circuit here has unequivocally adopted Nimmer’s new tune, which states that merely making the work available to the public is sufficient to constitute distribution. And it approvingly cited Professor Menell’s article, which reaches the same conclusion. Moreover, the Tenth Circuit adopted Hotaling’s holding without mentioning the underlying evidentiary rationale applicable in the library context that led other courts to distinguish its holding in the file-sharing context. While the Tenth Circuit did not address whether its holding would apply to file-sharing, it’s really difficult to see how it would not.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline


  1. For the argument that Nimmer was wrong to change its tune on the making available issue, see Rick Sanders, Will Professor Nimmer’s Change of Heart on File Sharing Matter?, 15 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 857 (2013). []
  2. Diversey v. Schmidly, 2013 WL 6727517 at *4-5 (10th Cir. Dec. 23, 2013). []
  3. Id. at *4 n.7 (citation omitted). []
  4. See Hotaling v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 118 F.3d 199, 203 (4th Cir. 1997). []
  5. See Nat’l Car Rental Sys., Inc. v. Computer Associates Int’l, Inc., 991 F.2d 426, 433-34 (8th Cir. 1993). []
  6. See Peter S. Menell, In Search of Copyright’s Lost Ark: Interpreting the Right to Distribute in the Internet Age, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 1 (2011). []
  7. See Atl. Recording Corp. v. Howell, 554 F.Supp.2d 976, 981-85 (D. Ariz. 2008) (gathering cases). []

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For over six years, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been doggedly pursuing Universal Music for a DMCA takedown notice that removed a 29 second clip of a dancing baby from YouTube for approximately six weeks. The case is currently in front of the Ninth Circuit on appeal. The EFF has soldiered on for so long in order to create a precedent that copyright owners should be punished if they make one wrong step protecting their works in order to stop what some call “rampant abuse” of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice-and-takedown provisions. Yet if the EFF is successful, it will create a much bigger burden to creators who are already overburdened keeping their works from being exploited by illegitimate sites.

The story is probably familiar to most readers. In 2007, mother Stephanie Lenz filmed her toddler dancing in the kitchen while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” played on a radio in the background. Lenz uploaded the half a minute clip to YouTube. Universal Music, the administrator of Prince’s musical composition copyrights, regularly monitored YouTube for infringement of Prince works. After a brief review of Lenz’s clip, Universal sent a takedown notice to YouTube, which YouTube complied with. The EFF soon came calling, and helped Lenz submit a counternotice to YouTube to restore the clip online. Lenz then filed suit claiming that Universal knowingly made a material misrepresentation that Lenz’s video was infringing in its takedown notice, a claim that is actionable under 17 USC § 512(f).

Years of discovery followed. This past January, the district court denied both parties’ summary judgment motions on Lenz’s. Few would argue that sending a takedown notice because a poor quality version of a portion of a song appears in the background of a home video is a smart thing to do. The question is whether it gives rise to legal liability.

The court said that the DMCA’s requirement of a good faith representation that a use of a work is not authorized by law demands, at a minimum, an initial assessment of whether the fair use doctrine applies. But it rejected the EFF’s argument that failure to consider fair use by itself is sufficient to establish liability under § 512(f). The court relied on the Ninth Circuit’s earlier decision in Rossi v. MPAA, which held that the “good faith belief” requirement in the DMCA encompasses a subjective standard (that is, whether it is reasonable from the perspective of the actual individual), not an objective standard (that is, whether it is reasonable from the perspective of a hypothetical “reasonable” observer), and “[a] copyright owner cannot be liable simply because an unknowing mistake is made, even if the copyright owner acted unreasonably in making the mistake.”1 Thus, the statute requires actual knowledge that a material misrepresentation had been made.

The EFF also argued that Universal’s failure to thoroughly consider fair use amounted to willful blindness – a form of actual knowledge under the law. As the court notes, the Supreme Court recently defined willful blindness as a subjective belief that there is a high probability that a fact exists combined with deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact.2 The court rejected the EFF’s contention that the Prince song playing in her video was “self-evident” fair use, saying, “A legal conclusion that fair use was ‘self-evident’ necessarily would rest upon an objective measure rather than the subjective standard required by Rossi.” Ultimately, however, the court did not see enough evidence from either side to make a ruling as a matter of law at this stage in the proceedings. Both sides appealed.

512(f) and the proper standard

The DMCA in part provides a safe harbor from liability for infringing material uploaded to online service providers by third parties for purposes of storage if (among other requirements) those service providers remove the material upon notice by the copyright owner. The statute spells out what information is required on such notices, information that includes “A statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.”3 The statute also creates a cause of action against “Any person who knowingly materially misrepresents under this section … that material or activity is infringing.”

Rossi is the leading case interpreting these provisions. Michael J. Rossi owned the internet site “” that boasted “Join to download full length movies online now! new movies every month”; “Full Length Downloadable Movies”; and “NOW DOWNLOADABLE” – it also included graphics of a number of MPAA member studio films. Upon discovering the site, the MPAA sent a takedown notice to Rossi’s ISP, which complied. The MPAA hadn’t attempted actually downloading any films from the site before sending the takedown notice, and apparently the site, despite its claims, did not contain any infringing material. Rossi sued for, among other things, misrepresentation under § 512(f), arguing that the MPAA should have known the site did not infringe.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with Rossi, and held that the DMCA encompassed a subjective standard for two reasons. First, courts have traditionally interpreted the phrase “good faith” in other statutes as indicating a subjective standard. Second, the structure of the DMCA suggests Congress intended a subjective standard.

Juxtaposing the “good faith” proviso of the DMCA with the “knowing misrepresentation” provision of that same statute reveals an apparent statutory structure that predicated the imposition of liability upon copyright owners only for knowing misrepresentations regarding allegedly infringing websites. Measuring compliance with a lesser “objective reasonableness” standard would be inconsistent with Congress’s apparent intent that the statute protect potential violators from subjectively improper actions by copyright owners.

Rossi is on solid grounds, both for legal reasons and for policy reasons. As one recent court said, “The high standard for a § 512(f) claim reflects the reality that copyright owners face an uphill battle to protect their copyrights on the internet. … Without the subjective standard, copyright owners … could face limitless lawsuits just by policing [their] copyrighted material on the internet.”4 The EFF’s primary argument for seeking an objective standard is based on a California district court case that was released before Rossi.

The EFF’s argument that copyright owners must consider fair use before sending takedown notices fails for an even more fundamental reason. Fair use is an affirmative defense, meaning the onus is on a defendant to raise it. It would be unusual — not to mention near impossible — to require a plaintiff to anticipate any possible defenses a defendant might decide to raise and then consider them.

An example illustrates the problems that arise from this approach. To bolster its argument that “Based on the facts readily available to it, Universal should have known Ms. Lenz’s video was lawful,” the EFF stitches together case holdings from the Ninth Circuit, the Second Circuit, the Southern District Court of New York, and the Central District Court of California. It also cites to one case that came out five years after Universal sent its takedown notice.

The EFF has inadvertently revealed the fatal flaw in its argument here. Its legal analysis that should make fair use obvious to a reasonable person only works if the analysis takes place in some sort of conglomerate circuit court. But that’s not how things work in the real world. The fact is that fair use is not so much a legal determination as it is an adjudicated determination, one far outside the narrow scope of § 512(f).

DMCA abuse and perspective

That’s not to say there isn’t abuse of DMCA takedown notices, nor that § 512(f) shouldn’t work to prevent such abuse.

There are certainly examples of bad actors sending takedown notices for sites or content that is not infringing or likely not infringing for purposes of harassment, suppressing criticism, or stifling competition. This is obvious abuse, and this abuse reflects poorly on the vast majority of copyright owners who don’t abuse the DMCA process.

(There is also a lot of other stuff that isn’t abuse but categorized as such nevertheless. This may include takedowns that are a result of either overzealous or inexperienced/mistaken creators, or automated processes. Technical processes are constantly improved, and copyright owners have incentives to makes sure they are accurate since they generally don’t want to spend time and resources going after works that don’t harm their own property. As for overzealous enforcement, many copyright owners have found that the bad PR that results from too heavy a hand in sending takedown notices is not worth it.)

Abusive takedown notices receive a lot of attention, amplified by groups like the EFF to be sure, but how big of a problem are they within the larger picture?

A recent paper by Prof. Bruce Boyden provides one data point. In The Failure of the DMCA Notice and Takedown System, Boyden notes that from March to August 2013, the MPAA sent 25.2 million DMCA notices and received a total of eight counternotices claiming the targeted work did not infringe or was fair use or otherwise authorized. Not eight million — just eight.

Google’s own amicus brief in this case states it receives “hundreds of notices” that are not targeted at infringement. That’s a lot to be sure, but Google also receives nearly 24 million notices in total every month.

During last week’s public meeting on the USPTO Green Paper, the EFF’s Corynne McSherry made reference to a story that made waves earlier this year, involving several DMCA takedown notices intended for infringing copies of the television show Homeland targeting copies of Cory Doctorow’s book by the same name. The rhetoric certainly made it sound like a disaster: Doctorow’s book was “shut down” by “overzealous” takedowns, his novel “censored” by a veritable “dragnet.”

But take a closer look at the actual takedown notices that were at issue. Contained on them was not just URLs to copies of Homeland by Cory Doctorow but also URLs to copies of the TV show Homeland, as well as other television shows owned by the same copyright owner. Lots of URLs. One takedown notice has four links to Doctorow’s work out of around ten thousand total links. Another has sixty-two out of over 4,200 total links. A third has three out of around 9,600 total links. The “dragnet” captured a couple dozen copies of Doctorow’s book out of over 20,000 total URLs.

So we can ask two questions. Do we want to see noninfringing content become temporarily inaccessible at certain web sites?5 Of course not. But, at the same time, is a greater than 99.8% accuracy rate acceptable, especially when you’re dealing with tens of millions of notices a month?

Abusive takedowns are a problem, certainly, but they are a problem that exists at the far margins of the notice and takedown system. Seeking solutions could be a helpful discussion, but solutions shouldn’t come at the expense of the overwhelming majority of legitimate notices that are sent.

What shape would these solutions take?

Solutions, should they be needed, could come from the private sector. Because of the way courts have interpreted the DMCA, the burden falls almost exclusively on creators to identify infringing works. Service providers have little responsibility in cooperating with copyright owners to detect and deal with online copyright infringement, as Congress intended when it drafted the statute.6 That cooperation could include mitigating abusive notices since both service providers and copyright owners are motivated to prevent them. Unfortunately, many service providers have taken a minimal, hands off approach to the DMCA, doing little more than responding to takedown notices when they arrive. If service providers played a more active role in protecting creative works, perhaps the more egregious abusive takedowns could be prevented. This might be accomplished by incorporating best practices into voluntary initiatives or building more effective technical measures. Increasing transparency and streamlining internal appeals processes.

They might also come from government. The Copyright Office released a report on copyright small claims September 30, 2013. The report examined alternatives to litigation in federal courts that would be more accessible to individual creators with limited resources. The Office recommended a streamlined, voluntary administrative tribunal that would hear infringement claims with amounts at stake under a certain monetary threshold. The goal of such proceedings would be to afford effective remedies when federal litigation is resource prohibitive.

Interestingly, the Copyright Office proposes that the tribunal hear not only infringement claims, but also claims of misrepresentation in DMCA takedown notices or counter notifications under section 512(f).7 The challenge with implementing the small claims court would be providing a process that is accessible to the general public without opening the door to a flood of frivolous or vexatious claims, but if that balance can be struck, the availability of hearing 512(f) claims may help address those rare cases of abuse that currently go unaddressed and relieve some tension in copyright debates.


The EFF spends much of its brief appealing to free speech values.8 But courts should also be mindful of the free speech values that meaningful copyright protection promotes, and the chilling effect that the tidal wave of online infringement has on creators. As Susan Cleary of the Independent Film & Television Alliance said at a panel last week on creating a multistakeholder process to identify ways to improve the notice-and-takedown process, the game of whack-a-mole itself may be fun, but playing whack-a-mole with online infringement is not so much fun when it prevents your ability to finance your next film. Throwing up barriers against speech being made in the first place — especially speech from independent and niche voices — is a far graver threat to free speech then the temporary inaccessibility of already existing speech on a single website.


  1. 391 F. 3d 1000 (2004). []
  2. Global Tech. Appliances, Inc. v. SEB SA, 131 S.Ct. 2060, 2070 (2011). []
  3. 17 USC § 512(c)(3)(A)(v). []
  4. Ouellette v. Viacom Int’l, Inc., No. CV 10-133-M-DWM-JCL (D. Montana, April 25, 2012). []
  5. I’m certain that despite Doctorow’s novel being removed from sites like “”, it was still readily available at other sites, like Doctorow’s own home page. []
  6. Senate Report 105-190 at 20 (1998). []
  7. It’s unclear to me what remedies would be available under the draft legislation provided in the report. § 1403(c)(3) limits remedies in proceedings involving 512(f) claims, which I presume are not “infringement” claims, to “those available under this chapter.” But §1404(d)(1)(C), which sets remedies for claims other than copyright infringement, says damages “shall be awarded in accordance with applicable law.” []
  8. Though it oversteps when it says that private actors can violate the First Amendment. Pg. 58. []

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This morning, the Federal Circuit dove into the wild and wooly world of software copyright, hearing oral arguments in Oracle v. Google. The case between the two juggernauts could have enormous implications for the software industry, which contributes more than $260 billion to the U.S. GDP each year and employs 2 million U.S. workers.

Oracle licenses the programming language Java.1 One of the key features of Java is the Java Virtual Machine, which enables Java programs to run on any platform – a software developer can “write once, run anywhere” using Java.

To facilitate development of Java applications, Oracle also created a set of packages, or APIs. Each package is made up of multiple classes, and each class consists of a set of methods, each of which performs a specific function. Rather than writing a specific function from scratch, a Java developer can simply drop in a reference to the API.

While Google had become dominant in the desktop world by the mid 00’s, it was facing a lot of competition in the quickly growing mobile space. It acquired Android, Inc., in 2005 for the mobile software platform the company was developing, and began discussions with Oracle to license the Java operating system in order to quickly tap into a community of developers to build up a universe of apps.

But after five years, negotiations fell apart. Undeterred, Google created its own virtual machine and packages, but also copied verbatim the declaring code of 37 of the most popular Java packages. Oracle sued for copyright and patent infringement.

The procedural history of the case so far is a bit complicated because of the complexity of the issues. The trial was broken up into phases to address the patent and copyright issues separately. During the copyright phase, the jury was told to assume that the code was copyrightable to determine whether Google infringed the API packages, whether the infringement was fair use, and whether any copying of other snippets of code was de minimis. The trial court would later determine whether, as a legal matter, the code actually was copyrightable – the thinking was that this sequence would avoid a retrial if the judge found the code was not copyrightable and an appeals court reversed; the appeals court could then simply reinstate the jury’s verdict.

The jury found that (assuming the code was copyrightable) Google had infringed the 37 Java API packages but deadlocked on the fair use question. It also found that all snippet copying was de minimis except for one, a snippet named “range-Check.”

However, when the court then looked at copyrightability in the first instance, it held that Google had not copied anything protected by copyright. It based its holding first on the fact that Google had not copied the code that implemented methods from Java. Second, the “structure, sequence and organization” of the 37 packages that Google did copy from Java – amounting to over 7,000 lines of code – was not copyrightable because the court considered it a “system” or “method of operation,” both of which are not copyrightable under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.

Oracle appealed the decision to the Federal Circuit, which must determine whether the statutory copyright protection for software extends to source code and the structure, sequence and organization of the Java packages that Google admits to copying and whether that copying qualifies as fair use. Affirmation would endorse the type of free-riding Google engaged in here and erode the ability of software creators to invest in the constant innovation that drives this vibrant sector.

When does copyright protect software?

Software is protected under the Copyright Act as a “literary work.” Figuring out what exactly is protected and is not protected, however, can quickly become complicated, as application of copyright’s doctrines occur at a much more conceptual level than other subject matter. For example, copyright protects form, not function2 – but how is that applied to software code, all of which performs some sort of function?

The district court’s holding that Google only copied nonprotected “methods of operation” seems most vulnerable on appeal. The court itself even admitted that “nothing in the rules of the Java language . . . required that Google replicate the same groupings.” Any concerns that protecting Oracle’s expression in its Java packages would prevent other developers from the underlying functional ideas are overstated. Indeed, Google was here able to deliver the same functionality without copying the Java implementations.

It’s difficult also to see how the interoperability argument holds up: Java and Android are not interoperable. Oracle’s appellate brief points out that this, in fact, is one of the primary reasons the two parties failed to reach a licensing agreement: “Google wanted to be the only company ever allowed to use the Java packages commercially without making its implementation compatible with the Java virtual machine and therefore interoperable with other Java programs.” The reason Google copied the 37 packages was to attract app developers more easily, not to create a compatible product. At the very least, the question of interoperability should be addressed as part of the larger fair use inquiry, not under the threshold question of copyrightability.

Last week, IP attorney Lee Gesmer discussed some further legal nuances in the case that are well worth a read.

In the end, a win for Google at the Federal Circuit would not, as some have said, be a win for innovation and interoperability – just the opposite, in fact. A win would create a preference for copying and free-riding over innovation. And, as stated above, the copying here created less interoperability rather than more.

This is especially concerning because of how Google increasingly operates. Some have suggested that Google uses open source as a “Trojan Horse” for locking users into its own closed ecosystem. That is, it creates an open space that is freely available to jump start its marketshare, than slowly creeps toward closed systems as it increases dominance. Last month, Rom Amadeo discussed this in an Ars Technica article, Google’s iron grip on Android: Controlling open source by any means necessary. Amadeo said:

While Android is open, it’s more of a “look but don’t touch” kind of open. You’re allowed to contribute to Android and allowed to use it for little hobbies, but in nearly every area, the deck is stacked against anyone trying to use Android without Google’s blessing. The second you try to take Android and do something that Google doesn’t approve of, it will bring the world crashing down upon you.

Judges seemed skeptical of Google’s argument this morning, but a ruling is not expected for several months.


  1. Which it acquired after purchasing the original creator of Java, Sun Microsystems, in 2010. To keep things simple, I’ll use “Oracle” throughout this article to refer to Oracle or Sun. []
  2. Mazer v. Stein, 347 US 201 (1954). []

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