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.
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.
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.
A performance right for dramatic compositions first appeared in US copyright law in 1856. Nondramatic musical works gained a performance right in 1897, 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. 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. 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. 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. The Ninth Circuit, however, rejected this argument, holding that hotel rooms, though offered to the general public, become private spaces once they are rented. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
It is also, perhaps, worth pointing out that it is not a performance that is embodied in a copy but a work. 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.
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”?