May 28, 2014 · · Comments Off

Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

While the distinction between law and equity may seem antiquated to modern ears, the Supreme Court handed down an interesting copyright opinion last week which turned on whether the plaintiff’s claims were legal or equitable in nature. In Petrella v. MGM, the Court held that the affirmative defense of laches, which bars claims where the plaintiff has unreasonably slept on her rights to the prejudice of the defendant, is only available when the claim is equitable in nature—and even then only when the circumstances are extraordinary, which they were not in Petrella’s case.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. The plaintiff, Paula Petrella, sued MGM and others in 2009 for copyright infringement, unjust enrichment, and accounting over the movie “Raging Bull.” Petrella’s father authored a book and two screenplays which were the bases for the movie, and he assigned his rights—including his renewal rights—to MGM’s predecessor-in-interest. However, when Petrella’s father died before the commencement of the renewal period, Petrella inherited his renewal rights—the very rights he had previously assigned away—under the Supreme Court’s holding in Stewart v. Abend. Petrella renewed the rights when the original twenty-eight year term was up in 1991.

But it was not until seven years later in 1998 that Petrella contacted MGM to claim that the movie was an infringing derivative work of the rights she had acquired, and it was not until 2009 that Petrella initiated the instant civil action against MGM. The district court granted summary judgment to MGM, holding that all of Petrella’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that Petrella’s delay from 1991 (when she acquired the rights) to 2009 (when she finally sued MGM) was unreasonable on her part and prejudicial to MGM. The appellate court was not impressed with the fact that Petrella had waited until the movie was profitable before filing suit.

Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit made a point of noting that Petrella’s claims for unjust enrichment and accounting were equitable in nature:

Recovery of an unjust enrichment is an equitable remedy. Seeking an accounting, where the accounting is not provided for by contract, is also an equitable remedy. Because laches is an equitable defense, we agree with the district court that laches also bars Petrella’s unjust enrichment and accounting claims.1

The Ninth Circuit cited a treatise for the proposition that “since an accounting of profits is an equitable remedy, the plaintiff may be refused the remedy upon equitable grounds.”2 Thus, the Court of Appeals indicated that the availability of an equitable defense such as laches turned on the nature of the remedy being sought, and since unjust enrichment and accounting were equitable remedies, laches could bar such claims.

But the Ninth Circuit was not nearly as cautious when it came to Petrella’s copyright infringement claim. Strangely, the appellate court never mentioned exactly which remedy Petrella sought for the infringement. While it was careful to point out that laches applied to the unjust enrichment and accounting claims because those were equitable in nature, the Ninth Circuit carelessly applied laches to the infringement claim without a single word on whether Petrella there sought legal or equitable relief. The circuit panel instead relied on Ninth Circuit precedent providing that “if any part of the alleged wrongful conduct occurred outside of the limitations period, courts presume that the plaintiff’s claims are barred by laches.”3

The Ninth Circuit thus viewed the laches defense as equitable in nature and applicable to any claim for equitable relief—even for equitable claims within the three-year statute of limitations period.4 Additionally, the circuit court thought that laches was applicable to claims for legal remedies, though the rule it invoked had two parts: If all of the allegedly infringing conduct occurred within the three-year statute of limitations period, then laches presumptively did not apply (though it was still available). On the other hand, if some of the allegedly infringing conduct occurred before the three-year statute of limitations period, then laches presumptively did apply. And since Petrella waited almost two decades to sue MGM, the Ninth Circuit applied its presumption that laches barred her copyright infringement claim—even if Petrella was seeking only legal remedies for the infringement.

While this discussion of law vs. equity may sound archaic and overly formalistic, there is one area of constitutional law where the distinction plays a major role, namely, with the right to a jury trial. The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved . . . .5

Whether there is a constitutional right to a jury trial turns on whether the claim constitutes a “suit[] at common law.” The Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that there is a Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial when the claim is one that would have been an action at law instituted in a court of law—as opposed to a suit in equity brought before a court of equity—back in 1791.6 For modern causes of action that did not exist in 1791, the Court looks at what would have been an analogous claim at the time and characterizes it accordingly. If the claim is legal in nature, then it qualifies as a “suit[] at common law” and there is a constitutional right to a jury trial. Equitable claims, by contrast, carry no constitutional right to a jury trial, and they are instead heard only by a judge.

In Feltner v. Columbia Pictures, the Supreme Court looked at whether the Seventh Amendment provides a constitutional right to a jury trial on the issue of statutory damages for copyright infringement.7 The Ninth Circuit below had characterized statutory damages as equitable in nature, thus providing no constitutional right to a jury trial. The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that “suits at common law” under the Seventh Amendment included both judge-made and statutory causes of action:

The Seventh Amendment thus applies not only to common-law causes of action, but also to actions brought to enforce statutory rights that are analogous to common-law causes of action ordinarily decided in English law courts in the late 18th century, as opposed to those customarily heard by courts of equity or admiralty.8

The Supreme Court employed a two-pronged analysis to determine whether statutory damages were legal or equitable in nature:

To determine whether a statutory action is more analogous to cases tried in courts of law than to suits tried in courts of equity or admiralty, we examine both the nature of the statutory action and the remedy sought.9

In the Supreme Court’s opinion, “close analogues” to claims for statutory damages existed before the Seventh Amendment was adopted in both common law and statutory causes of action for “monetary damages” that “were tried in courts of law, and thus before juries.”10 The “general rule” was that “monetary relief is legal,” the Court noted, “and an award of statutory damages may serve purposes traditionally associated with legal relief, such as compensation and punishment.”11 Since statutory damages were analogous to actions at law for actual damages in the late eighteenth century—actions that would have been tried before a jury in a court of law—the Supreme Court held that statutory damages were legal in nature. This in turn meant that there was a constitutional right to a jury trial on the issue of statutory damages under the Seventh Amendment.

The remedies for copyright infringement available under the Copyright Act are codified in Sections 502 – 505, all subject to the three-year statute of limitations found in Section 507(b).12 Claims for damages and profits fall under Section 504. The copyright owner can elect either “actual damages suffered by him or her” and “any profits of the infringer” under Section 504(b), or “an award of statutory damages” within the given range under Section 504(c). While damages and profits are lumped together in Section 504, it should be noted that the two remedies are quite different in nature. Damages are compensatory, meaning they compensate the plaintiff’s loss and make her whole. Profits, on the other hand, are restitutionary, meaning they disgorge the defendant’s gain under the principle of unjust enrichment.13 Claims for damages are legal in nature, while claims for profits are equitable.

I think much of the modern confusion about the law-equity divide comes from the fact that courts of law and courts of equity were merged over seventy-five years ago. As the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure now declare: “There is one form of action—the civil action.”14 Gone are the procedural differences between an action at law and a suit in equity. A plaintiff seeking both legal and equitable remedies can file a single civil action for both types of claims. But while the procedural differences between law and equity have been abrogated, the substantive differences remain.15 These substantive differences include whether there is a constitutional right to a jury trial on a given claim, and, as the Supreme Court reiterated in Petrella, whether an equitable defense such as laches is available to bar a claim for legal or equitable relief brought within the statute of limitations. The law-equity divide is very much alive in copyright law.

The Supreme Court came down 6-3 in favor of Petrella, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority and Justice Breyer in dissent. The Court held that the applicability of laches to claims brought within the statute of limitations turns on whether the remedy sought is legal or equitable in nature:

Section 507(b), it is undisputed, bars relief of any kind for conduct occurring prior to the three-year limitations period. To the extent that an infringement suit seeks relief solely for conduct occurring within the limitations period, however, courts are not at liberty to jettison Congress’ judgment on the timeliness of suit. Laches, we hold, cannot be invoked to preclude adjudication of a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. As to equitable relief, in extraordinary circumstances, laches may bar at the very threshold the particular relief requested by the plaintiff.16

This paragraph needs a bit of unpacking. First, the Supreme Court pointed out that the statute of limitations bars all claims—whether for legal or equitable relief—for infringing conduct that occurred more than three years before the claim accrued. But what happened within the three-year limitations period was a bit more complicated. The Court said that because Congress had spoken on the issue of timeliness in enacting the statute of limitations, the judiciary could not “jettison Congress’ judgment.” This was implicitly based on the separation of powers—but that respect for the judgment of Congress only went so far. The Court said that laches could not trump the statute of limitations—but only when the remedy sought was legal in nature. When the plaintiff sought an equitable remedy, laches could be invoked to trump the statute of limitations—but only in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, offered a bit of history on the interplay between laches and the statute of limitations. It was not until 1957 that Congress enacted a statute of limitations for civil actions under the Copyright Act.17 Before then, the federal courts would turn to state statutes of limitations for timeliness determinations. Laches could be invoked to trump those state timeliness statutes because doing so was “merely filling a legislative hole,” “not invading congressional prerogatives.”18 But that’s not the case anymore, as Justice Ginsburg noted, since “Congress addressed the matter and filled the hole” when it added the statute of limitations to the Copyright Act.19

Justice Ginsburg observed that the “principal application” of laches was “to claims of an equitable cast for which the Legislature ha[d] provided no fixed time limitation,” and historically statutes of limitations did not apply to “measures of equitable relief.”20 According to the Supreme Court, this tradition of only applying laches to equitable claims survives in modern times. But note the work that laches does today: The statute of limitations in Section 507(b) still bars all claims for equitable relief for infringing acts more than three years old, but within that three-year period, laches can be invoked to bar all equitable claims. Thus, even though Congress, in enacting the statute of limitations, had also explicitly “filled the hole” with respect to the timeliness of equitable claims, the Supreme Court sees no problem with courts invoking laches to bar claims that are equitable in nature.

The Supreme Court’s reasoning was fairly nuanced—yet, to a degree, it was also nonsensical. The Court held that laches cannot be invoked to bar claims for legal relief because Congress had enacted a statute of limitations for all legal claims. Applying laches to legal claims would invade “congressional prerogatives,” that is, implicate separation of powers concerns. But then the Court also held that laches can be invoked to bar claims for equitable relief, despite the fact that Congress had also enacted a statute of limitations for such equitable claims. And this application of laches, the Court must have thought, did not impermissibly invade “congressional prerogatives.” The judiciary seized that power before the merger of law and equity, and apparently it’s not letting go of it now.

Applying its rule to the facts of Petrella, the Supreme Court held that “the courts below erred in treating laches as a complete bar to Petrella’s copyright infringement suit” because the “action was commenced within the bounds of § 507(b), the Act’s time-to-sue prescription, and d[id] not present extraordinary circumstances” that would merit invoking laches to bar the equitable claims. The Court went on to say that even though Petrella’s delay was not extraordinary, such that it should knock out her equitable claims at the outset, it nevertheless could be relevant at the remedial stage—but only for the equitable claims. Thus, even though Petrella’s delay for almost two decades could not bar her claims for equitable remedies as a threshold matter, those remedies, if awarded, could be negatively adjusted on account of her delay.

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Footnotes

  1. Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 695 F.3d 946, 956 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal citations omitted). []
  2. Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). []
  3. Miller v. Glenn Miller Prods., Inc., 454 F.3d 975, 997 (9th Cir. 2006). []
  4. Though the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s application of laches to Petrella’s equitable claims under the particular facts of the case, the Court ultimately agreed with the Ninth Circuit on the general availability of laches to bar equitable claims within the three-year statute of limitations period. []
  5. U.S. Const. amend. VII. []
  6. See, e.g., Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers, Local No. 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558, 564-65 (1990). []
  7. See Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., 523 U.S. 340 (1998). []
  8. Id. at 348 (internal citations and quotations omitted). []
  9. Id. (internal citations omitted). []
  10. Id. at 348-49. []
  11. Id. at 352 (internal citations omitted). []
  12. 17 U.S.C.A. § 507(b) (West 2014) (“No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.”). []
  13. See, e.g., Colleen P. Murphy, Misclassifying Monetary Restitution, 55 SMU L. Rev. 1577, 1585-86 (2002). []
  14. Fed. R. Civ. P. 2 (West 2014). []
  15. See, e.g., Stainback v. Mo Hock Ke Lok Po, 336 U.S. 368, 382 n.26 (1949) (“Notwithstanding the fusion of law and equity by the Rules of Civil Procedure, the substantive principles of Courts of Chancery remain unaffected.”). []
  16. Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., No. 12-1315, 2014 WL 2011574 at *4 (U.S. May 19, 2014). []
  17. See Pub. L. 85-313, 71 Stat. 633 (September 7, 1957) (amending Section 115(b) to read “No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless the same is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.”). []
  18. Petrella, 2014 WL 2011574 at *5 (internal citations and quotations omitted). []
  19. Id. []
  20. Id. at *9 (internal citations and quotations omitted). []

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On Monday, the Supreme Court released its decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. The issue there was whether the equitable doctrine of laches could ever bar infringement claims that are brought within the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations period. The Court held that it could not.

But in doing so, did the Court inadvertently weigh in on an unrelated issue, one that is currently the subject of one the widest circuit splits in copyright law?

Application and Registration Approaches

Under US copyright law, works are protected as soon as they are created. However, the law does provide for a voluntary registration mechanism that confers a number of benefits. For example, registration is a prerequisite to filing an infringement lawsuit. Section 411(a) provides that, “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”

Circuits are split on whether Section 411(a) requires a registration to have been processed by the US Copyright Office before a copyright holder can bring suit or whether the requirement is satisfied as soon as the Office receives the application.

The Tenth1 and Eleventh Circuits2 take the first view, the “registration” approach. The Fifth,3 Seventh,4 and Ninth Circuits5 embrace the second, the “application” approach.

The issue remains unresolved in other Circuit Courts. Just this past March, the First Circuit had an opportunity to adopt an approach but declined, as there was no evidence the plaintiff had submitted an application at all, making the question moot.6 While some observers have said the Eighth Circuit has taken the application approach, it does not seem to have definitively ruled on the issue.7

District courts within the Second Circuit are split,8 as are courts in the Fourth.9 (Just last week, a District Court in Virginia took the application approach.)10

The three major copyright treatises, by the way, follow the same pattern as the courts, with Patry in favor of the registration approach, Nimmer favoring the application approach, and Goldstein taking no position.

Which Approach?

The strongest support for the registration approach comes from the plain text of the statute. Section 411(a) says no action for infringement shall be instituted “until registration” has been made, and other provisions in the Copyright Act detail a set of steps involved in the registration process beyond the receipt of the application.

In adopting the registration approach, the Tenth Circuit noted an additional problem under the application approach: “shifting legal entitlements.” “If, for example, an applicant could obtain the advantage of the presumption that the copyright is valid upon application, see 17 U.S.C. § 408(c), but then, after examination the Register of Copyrights determined the material is not copyrightable, the presumption of validity would swing back and forth.”11

Courts adopting the application approach also find support in the statutory language. They point to the ambiguity in Section 408, which says copyright owners “may obtain registration of the copyright claim by delivering to the Copyright Office the deposit specified by this section, together with the application and fee,” as supportive of either approach. In addition, Section 410(d) could also be read in support of either approach since it provides that the effective date of a registration is the date the application is received by the Copyright Office.

Courts have also found other reasons to support the application approach. Section 411(a) allows the institution of an action for infringement even if the Copyright Office refuses an application. The act of delivering an application, then, is all that is necessary on the part of the copyright owner to be able to file a lawsuit, which makes the actual processing of the application a mere formality—one that serves little function since, as noted above, the effective date of a registration is the date the application is delivered. Requiring strict adherence to this formality, as the registration approach does, incurs real costs—copyright applications currently can take at least 3-5 months to process. A copyright owner will suffer unnecessary damages if infringement continues to occur while she waits for her registration certificate, and may lose the ability to sue if she is toward the end of the statute of limitations period.

Did Petrella Adopt the Registration Approach?

Given the wide disagreement in the Circuits and the persuasive arguments on both sides, it is somewhat surprising that the Supreme Court would touch on this issue.

During a discussion rebutting the argument that there is a danger in losing evidence if a copyright owner remains inactive, the Court notes that the registration mechanism reduces the need for extrinsic evidence, saying, “Although registration is ‘permissive,’ both the certificate and the original work must be on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue for infringement.” The reference to a registration certificate being on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue strongly suggests the Supreme Court has taken the registration approach. But this is hardly an endorsement of the registration approach. There is no indication that the Court intended to weigh in on the issue, not even a footnote pointing out the Circuit split on the issue.

More importantly, the issue of which approach is correct was not in front of the Court, and its point here was not part of its holding, making it most likely dicta. Even then, given the almost off-handedness of the statement, combined with a lack of any discussion about the different approaches, it is not likely any courts will find this statement particularly persuasive.

Still, this is an issue worth noting by practitioners and copyright owners and underscores the importance of timely copyright registration for creators.

H/T to Leslie Burns for first spotting this issue. 

Footnotes

  1. La Resolana Architects, PA v. Clay Realtors Angel Fire, 416 F.3d 1195, 1202-07 (10th Cir. 2005), abrogated on other grounds by Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. 154. []
  2. M.G.B. Homes, Inc. v. Ameron Homes, Inc., 903 F.2d 1486, 1488-89 (11th Cir. 1990), abrogated on other grounds by Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. 154. []
  3. Apple Barrel Prods., Inc. v. Beard, 730 F.2d 384, 386-87 (5th Cir. 1984). []
  4. Chi. Bd. of Educ. v. Substance, Inc., 354 F.3d 624, 631 (7th Cir. 2003). []
  5. Cosmetic Ideas, Inc. v. IAC/Interactivecorp., 606 F.3d 612, 615-21 (9th Cir. 2010). []
  6. Aliciea v. Machete Music, No. 12-1548 (1st Cir. Mar. 7, 2014). []
  7. See Tri-Marketing v. Mainstream Marketing Services, Civ. No. 09-13 (DWF/RLE), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42694 (D. Minn. May 19, 2009), which held that while the Eighth Circuit appeared to have adopted the application approach in Action Tapes, Inc. v. Mattson, 462 F. 3d 1010 (8th Cir. 2006), the Circuit was not presented with the precise issue of “whether complying with copyright application requirements satisfies the jurisdictional requirements under § 411(a),” thus leaving the question of which approach is correct unresolved. []
  8. Compare Well-Made Toy Mfg. Corp. v. Goffa Intern. Corp., 210 F.Supp.2d 147, 157 (E.D.N.Y.2002) (application approach) to Demetriades v. Kaufmann, 680 F.Supp. 658, 661 (S.D.N.Y.1988) (registration approach). []
  9. See Mays & Associates, Inc. v. Euler, 370 F.Supp.2d 362, 367-370 (D. Md. 2005) for discussion. []
  10. Caner v. Autry, No. 6:14-cv-00004, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66508, (W.D. Va. May 14, 2014). []
  11. 416 F.3d at 1205. []

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On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit released its decision in Oracle America Inc. v. Google Inc. The dispute concerned allegations that Google copied elements from Oracle’s Java software platform when it developed its Android platform for the mobile market. The Federal Circuit handed Oracle a solid victory, ignoring Google’s push for an interoperability exception to excuse copying that was not for the purpose of interoperability.

The Litigation

The facts of the dispute are essentially this: Sun Microsystems (which has since been acquired by Oracle) developed the Java platform in 1996 with the idea of creating a virtual machine that allowed software to run on any platform or operating system – allowing programmers to “write once, run anywhere.” In 2005, Google acquired mobile startup Android, Inc. with an eye toward entering the mobile market. It entered into negotiations with Sun to license and adapt the Java platform for its mobile devices. The negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful – Google refused to “make the implementation of its programs compatible with the Java virtual machine or interoperable with other Java programs”, which ran counter to Sun’s commitment to interoperability.

So Google began to develop its own virtual machine to interact with the Java platform. It also wanted to take advantage of the developer community that Sun had built up rather than spending the time and effort building its own, so it copied the declaring source code from 37 Java API packages verbatim, as well as the “taxonomy” of the packages – the structure, sequence, and organization (“SSO”) of the packages and their respective classes. That way, developers already familiar with Java could easily begin writing programs for Google’s mobile platform, increasing its value.

The technology

This case does require some understanding of the technology at issue. The court begins by noting, “This copyright dispute involves 37 packages of computer source code. The parties have often referred to these groups of computer programs, individually or collectively, as ‘application programming interfaces,’ or API packages, but it is their content, not their name, that matters.”

The Java platform in its entirety provides an environment for programmers to develop applications that can run on any device or hardware. It essentially consists of the Java development kit (JDK) that programmers use to create their apps and the Java virtual machine (JVM) that runs the code, translating the app source code into source code that the machine the app is running on can understand.

Included in the development kit are a number of “ready-to-use” Java programs available to programmers to perform common computer functions – these are the API packages involved in the case. They are, in the words of the court, “shortcuts” that allow programmers to execute certain functions rather than writing the function from scratch. Each function is referred to as a “method.” Related methods are grouped together into “classes.” Related classes, in turn, are organized into “packages.”

The source code that the packages are composed of can logically be divided into two types: (1) the “implementing code” is the guts of the methods, the individual steps that comprise a specific function, and (2) the “declaring code” is the “header” that identifies the method and tells the programmer what the method needs, like what inputs must be provided and what outputs can be expected.

Oracle licenses its Java platform and API packages in three different ways: an open source license on its declaring and implementing code that is free but requires licensees to offer any changes or additions they contribute through open source licensing as well; a Specification license that provides licensees with the declaring code but not the implementing code; and a Commercial license, which allows businesses to “use and customize the full Java code in their commercial products and keep their code secret” in exchange for royalties.

The Procedure

A quick discussion of the procedure in the litigation here is also helpful, as it is a bit unusual. The issue of copyrightability – whether the declaring code and SSO are protectable in the first instance – was given to the trial judge to decide. The issue of infringement – whether Google’s copying of these intruded onto Oracle’s exclusive rights – was given to the jury, along with Google’s affirmative fair use defense. Because the issues were being determined simultaneously, the jury was instructed to assume copyrightability when it determined infringement and fair use.

The jury found that, presuming the API packages were copyrightable, Google had infringed, but it was unable to reach a verdict on fair use. However, the trial judge would later determine that the declaring headers and SSO were not protected by copyright, and Oracle appealed.

The Appeal

On appeal, it was undisputed that Google had “copied 7,000 lines of declaring code and generally replicated the overall structure, sequence, and organization of Oracle’s 37 Java API packages.” The question was whether these elements are protected by copyright. The district court had determined they were not because “(1) there was only one way to write the Java method declarations and remain ‘interoperable’ with Java; and (2) the organization and structure of the 37 Java API packages is a ‘command structure’ excluded from copyright protection under Section 102(b).”

Oracle argued that the district court was wrong when it “(1) concluded that each line of declaring code is uncopyrightable because the idea and expression have merged; (2) found the declaring code uncopyrightable because it employs short phrases; (3) found all aspects of the SSO devoid of protection as a ‘method of operation’ under 17 U.S.C. § 102(b); and (4) invoked Google’s ‘interoperability’ concerns in the copyrightability analysis.” The Federal Circuit agreed with Oracle on all its points.

Essentially, said the Federal Circuit, the district court approached the issue from the wrong direction, using doctrines meant to determine the scope of conduct that constitutes infringing activity in order to analyze the threshold question of copyrightability. (Or, as Lee Gesmer states it, “Filtration for interoperability should be performed ex ante, not ex post.”) The Circuit also held that concerns about interoperability that the district court brought up should be reserved for a fair use analysis.

Copyrightability

The Federal Circuit began its analysis by noting that “the application of copyright law in the computer context is often a difficult task” and then proceeded step-by-step through the question of copyrightability.

Computer programs can be protected by copyright as “literary works.” To be protected, a work must be “original” and possess “at least some minimal degree of creativity.” But protection extends only to the particular expression of an idea in a work, not to the idea itself. The Copyright Act refers to this distinction between ideas and expression in Section 102(b), which says:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

The Circuit observes that among the principles incorporated into this section is the rule that “those elements of a computer program that are necessarily incidental to its function are … unprotectable.”

It goes on to state that copyright protection extends to both literal and non-literal elements of computer programs. The literal elements include the verbatim source code. Non-literal elements include such components as the program’s sequence, structure, and organization. Here, Oracle was claiming copyright protection to both: “(1) literal elements of its API packages—the 7,000 lines of declaring source code; and (2) non-literal elements—the structure, sequence, and organization of each of the 37 Java API packages.”

As the court points out, no one disputes that these elements are original. What is at dispute is whether these elements are copyrightable under Section 102(b), and both parties disagree over the Section’s interpretation and application. In the end, the Circuit rejected Google’s argument that copyrightability of software programs is a two-step process, “wherein Section 102(a) grants copyright protection to original works, while Section 102(b) takes it away if the work has a functional component.” The court explained that both sections must be considered in tandem.

Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison

In order do so, the Ninth Circuit endorses the Second Circuit’s three step “abstraction-filtration-comparison” test.

In the abstraction step, the court “first break[s] down the allegedly infringed program into its constituent structural parts.” In the filtration step, the court “sift[s] out all non-protectable material,” including ideas and “expression that is necessarily incidental to those ideas.” In the final step, the court compares the remaining creative expression with the allegedly infringing program.

As the Federal Circuit explains, the second step involves consideration of “traditional copyright principles of originality, merger, and scenes a faire” to determine first whether expression is original to the programmer and second whether a particular element was included because of efficiency considerations, requirements external to the program itself, or taken from the public domain.

The first step of the abstraction-filtration-comparison test is part of the copyrightability analysis. The last question goes to infringement. In the Ninth Circuit, the second step straddles the line; questions of originality go toward copyrightability, while “concepts of merger and scenes a faire are affirmative defenses to claims of infringement.” According to the Circuit, “While the trial court mentioned the abstraction-filtration-comparison test when describing the development of relevant law, it did not purport to actually apply that test. Instead, it moved directly to application of familiar principles of copyright law when assessing the copyrightability of the declaring code and interpreted Section 102(b) to preclude copyrightability for any functional element ‘essential for interoperability’ ‘regardless of its form.’” The Circuit next addresses each holding of the lower court in turn.

First, the district court held that the declaring code was not entitled to copyright protection under the merger and short phrase doctrines. The merger doctrine prevents infringement of expression when that expression is the only way an idea can be expressed. For software, that means merger allows copying of elements that “are the only and essential means of accomplishing a given task.”

As stated above, however, the merger doctrine is used to determine infringement, not copyrightability. In addition, the district court improperly looked at merger from Google’s perspective. Instead, the Circuit explains, “merger cannot bar copyright protection for any lines of declaring source code unless Sun/Oracle had only one way, or a limited number of ways, to write them.” And, as the evidence shows, Sun/Oracle had virtually unlimited ways to write its declaring code.

Short phrases, of course, are not protectable, but as the Circuit observes, that does not mean any work that contains short phrases is not copyrightable. The relevant question is “whether those phrases are creative.” The Circuit explains:

By analogy, the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is nothing but a string of short phrases. Yet no one could contend that this portion of Dickens’ work is unworthy of copyright protection because it can be broken into those shorter constituent components. The question is not whether a short phrase or series of short phrases can be extracted from the work, but whether the manner in which they are used or strung together exhibits creativity.

The Circuit ultimately concludes that “Oracle ‘exercised creativity in the selection and arrangement’ of the method declarations when it created the API packages and wrote the relevant declaring code,” thus affording them copyright protection.

Next, the Circuit looks at the “scenes a faire doctrine,” which the trial court rejected but which Google raises on appeal. This doctrine bars from copyright protection “commonplace expressions” such as stock characters and scenes. For software, says the Circuit, “the scene a faire doctrine denies protection to program elements that are dictated by external factors such as ‘the mechanical specifications of the computer on which a particular program is intended to run’ or ‘widely accepted programming practices within the computer industry.’”

Google argued that “because programmers have become accustomed to and comfortable using the groupings in the Java API packages, those groupings are so commonplace as to be indispensable to the expression of an acceptable programming platform.” The Federal Circuit rejects this argument. As with the merger doctrine, the scenes a faire doctrine involves the question of infringement, not copyrightability. And also like the merger doctrine, “the focus of the scenes a faire doctrine is on the circumstances presented to the creator, not the copier. The court’s analytical focus must be upon the external factors that dictated Sun’s selection of classes, methods, and code—not upon what Google encountered at the time it chose to copy those groupings and that code.”

Structure, Sequence and Organization

The Federal Circuit next looks at the trial court’s conclusion that the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of the API packages is not copyrightable because it is a “system or method of operation.” The trial court appears, to the Federal Circuit, to have reached this conclusion by relying on the First Circuit’s Lotus Development Corp. v. Borland International, Inc. decision.

In Lotus, as the Federal Circuit explains, software developer Borland sought to develop a spreadsheet to compete with the popular Lotus 1-2-3. In doing so, it copied the menu command hierarchy of Lotus 1-2-3—where commands such as “Copy,” “Print,” and “Quit” are arranged into menus and submenus—in its entirety in order to make it easier for Lotus users to switch. The First Circuit held that this menu command hierarchy is not copyrightable subject matter. It is instead a “method of operation” which Section 102(b) bars from copyright protection. The First Circuit defined a “method of operation” as “the means by which a person operates something, whether it be a car, a food processor, or a computer” and held that the menu command hierarchy is the means by which a person operates Lotus 1-2-3.

The Circuit agreed with Oracle that it was incorrect to rely on Lotus because “it is distinguishable on its facts and is inconsistent with Ninth Circuit law.” The Circuit explain that, unlike here, Lotus did not involve any copying of the underlying code, the elements copied were not found creative by the Lotus court, and the elements copied were “essential to operating” the system.

“More importantly,” says the Circuit, “the Ninth Circuit has not adopted the court’s ‘method of operation’ reasoning in Lotus, and we conclude that it is inconsistent with binding precedent.” The Circuit sees Lotus’s rule that functional elements are never copyrightable as inconsistent with the abstraction-filtration-comparison analysis, a conclusion the Tenth Circuit had also come to when it rejected the adoption of Lotus. Indeed, notes the Federal Circuit, “no other circuit has adopted the First Circuit’s ‘method of operation’ analysis.”

The problem the Federal Circuit sees with the idea that functional elements can never be copyrightable is that it would mean no computer program is protectable—“computer programs are by definition functional.” The Circuit ultimately concludes “that a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection.” The Circuit explains what this distinction looks like in the case here:

On appeal, Oracle does not—and concedes that it cannot—claim copyright in the idea of organizing functions of a computer program or in the “package-class-method” organizational structure in the abstract. Instead, Oracle claims copyright protection only in its particular way of naming and organizing each of the 37 Java API packages. Oracle recognizes, for example, that it “cannot copyright the idea of programs that open an internet connection,” but “it can copyright the precise strings of code used to do so, at least so long as ‘other language is available’ to achieve the same function.” Thus, Oracle concedes that Google and others could employ the Java language—much like anyone could employ the English language to write a paragraph without violating the copyrights of other English language writers. And, that Google may employ the “package-class-method” structure much like authors can employ the same rules of grammar chosen by other authors without fear of infringement. What Oracle contends is that, beyond that point, Google, like any author, is not permitted to employ the precise phrasing or precise structure chosen by Oracle to flesh out the substance of its packages—the details and arrangement of the prose.

Interoperability

The lower court based its decision in part on the conclusion that “Google replicated what was necessary to achieve a degree of interoperability—but no more, taking care, as said before, to provide its own implementations” and reached this conclusion by relying on the Ninth Circuit decisions in Sega Enterprises v. Accolade, Inc. and Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix, Corp.

But as the Federal Circuit points out, both Sega and Sony are fair use cases, not copyrightability cases. In addition, they are distinguishable because “defendants in those cases made intermediate copies to understand the functional aspects of the copyrighted works and then created new products.” Here, however, Google copied literal and non-literal elements of Oracle’s software into its own product, not to reverse engineer Java “to figure out the ideas and functionality of the original” in order to create “its own structure and its own literal code.”

The Circuit rejects too Google’s suggestion of a broader “interoperability exception” to copyrightability as inconsistent with Ninth Circuit case law and the abstraction-filtration-comparison inquiry (which the Ninth Circuit endorsed in Sega itself). The Circuit once again reminds of the fact that copyrightability is focused on the choices available to the plaintiff when creating the original program. It notes “the relevant compatibility inquiry asks whether the plaintiff’s choices were dictated by a need to ensure that its program worked with existing third-party programs.  Whether a defendant later seeks to make its program interoperable with the plaintiff’s program has no bearing on whether the software the plaintiff created had any design limitations dictated by external factors.”

The Federal Circuit reserves its strongest words against Google in its discussion of interoperability. “Indeed,” says the Circuit, “given the record evidence that Google designed Android so that it would not be compatible with the Java platform, or the JVM specifically, we find Google’s interoperability argument confusing.” It goes on to point out, “The compatibility Google sought to foster was not with Oracle’s Java platform or with the JVM central to that platform. Instead, Google wanted to capitalize on the fact that software developers were already trained and experienced in using the Java API packages at issue.”

Fair Use

The Circuit ends by looking at Google’s assertion of a fair use defense, which the original jury was unable to reach a verdict on. Oracle argues on appeal that the Circuit should rule against fair use as a matter of law, saying “Google knowingly and illicitly copied a creative work to further its own commercial purposes, did so verbatim, and did so to the detriment of Oracle’s market position.” While the Circuit agrees that “Oracle’s position is not without force,” it ultimately holds that “due respect for the limit of our appellate function requires that we remand the fair use question for a new trial.” It does so because a number of material facts remain in dispute (fair use is a mixed question of fact and law).

First, disagreement remains over whether Google’s use is “transformative,” though the Circuit does point out that “Google overstates what activities can be deemed transformative under a correct application of the law.” Second, though it was error for the judge to consider interoperability in the copyrightability analysis, it may be relevant to a fair use inquiry. Finally, concerning market impact, the Circuit notes that Oracle disputes the district court’s finding that “Sun and Oracle never successfully developed its own smartphone platform using Java technology,” saying it had been licensing in the mobile and smartphone markets when Google copied its API packages, a move that harmed those commercial opportunities.

Next steps

This decision is just shy of a complete victory for Oracle. The Federal Circuit rejected all of Google’s arguments unequivocally. It agreed with all of Oracle’s arguments except for its argument that it should reject Google’s fair use defense—though even then, it showed a good deal of skepticism toward the defense (and, on the market harm prong, moved the needle more in favor of Oracle). But while nothing has been publicly announced yet, I imagine Google will seek a rehearing in front of the entire Federal Circuit before going back to the district court (and there’s always the chance Supreme Court review will be sought at a later point before any return to the district court).

Within hours of the decision, tech advocates and the tech press were already predicting the utter destruction of innovation. It has been called “potentially disastrous” and “dangerous” (along with predictable assertions that the judges involved must not understand technology). I believe, even if you disagree with the outcome of the case, these charges are greatly exaggerated. It’s difficult to see how interoperability is jeopardized by a case where the defendant deliberately set out to create a program that was not interoperable. And the decision does not impact the ability of developers using third-party APIs. At issue was not a defendant interacting with or using a third party’s API, but rather a defendant who copied and replicated an API qua API to be incorporated into its own platform.

I tend to agree with Oracle’s attorney Rosenkranz, who said, “There’s nothing at all astounding in what the Federal Circuit did.” The decision is methodical and well-reasoned. It correctly applies core copyright doctrines and existing precedent. No doubt it will become a seminal case in software copyright law, due in no small part to its thorough discussion of relevant doctrines, unless and until a full panel or the Supreme Court weighs in.

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The Story “Transcendence” Didn’t Tell — Another great piece from David Newhoff. “I defend copyrights for the same reason I’m uncomfortable with drone warfare and don’t want to see autonomous weapons, even if they might make my own kid’s future job in the Navy less hazardous. Copyrights, I believe, are merely one way in which we affirm that humans maintain dominion over their technology. When we reduce our intimate thoughts, ideas, and creative expressions to the banality of data, we take a step closer toward abdicating that authority.”

Comparative Study Of National Approaches To Internet Intermediary Liability — IP Watch discusses findings of a recent paper, presented at an April 30 side event to the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights which examined how 30 different jurisdictions handle the liability of internet intermediaries for infringement occurring on their systems.

Making Amends: China Music Copyright Law Primer — Professor Eric Priest provides an excellent intro to copyright law and policy in China.

Fearing Google — Bruce Schneier points to Mathias Döpfner’s open letter to Google and collects several reactions about concerns over the internet giant’s growing dominance.

Ti West On Why Piracy Hurts Indie Film (and It’s Not All About The Money) — “The independent film world is a fragile ecosystem. It allows for unique experiences and challenging stories to be told by bold filmmakers in adventurous and often unproven ways. Studio films do not take the same risks. But this adventurousness, this ability to surprise us, is why we love indie movies. By supporting this ecosystem, we are supporting the possibility of original, rewarding experiences that would otherwise go unnoticed.”

More Ad Dollars Flow to Pirated Video — The Wall Street Journal reports, “Sites brimming with pirated movies and television shows are being supported, inadvertently, by major marketers that buy ad space on them. Thanks to the rise of automated ad-buying technologies, more ad dollars are flowing to sites with stolen copyrighted content than ever before, ad executives say. Who should do the policing is a matter of debate in the industry.”

Dropbox disables old shared links after tax returns end up on Google — There are many reasons why one needs to be careful about what one is making available online as more and more of our dealings shift toward the cloud, as this story demonstrates. “IntraLinks said that ‘During a routine analysis of Google AdWords and Google Analytics data mentioning competitors’ names (Dropbox and Box), we inadvertently discovered the fully clickable URLs necessary to access these documents that led us to live folder contents, some with sensitive data. Through these links, we gained access to confidential files including tax returns, bank records, mortgage applications, blueprints and business plans—all highly sensitive information, some perhaps sufficient for identity theft and other crimes.’”

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Tom W. Bell, a professor at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law and an adjunct fellow of the Cato Institute, has a new book out from the Mercatus Center, Intellectual Privilege: Copyright, Common Law, and the Common Good. As its title suggests, Bell argues in favor of viewing copyright as a privilege rather than as property or as a right. At the same time, Bell argues that copyright has diverged from what the Constitutional Framers intended and should be reconfigured to address this divergence.

How accurate is this framing? One particularly compelling piece of evidence comes prior to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, which created a federal legislature with the power, among others, to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The Continental Congress appointed a committee “to consider the most proper means of cherishing genius and useful arts through the United States by securing to authors or publishers of new books their property in such works” on March 10th, 1783. This committee consisted of North Carolina representative Hugh Williamson, South Carolina representative Ralph Izard, and Viriginia representative James Madison, who would be the primary architect of the Constitution’s Copyright Clause.

Motion of Hugh Williamson

On May 2, the men presented the following to the Congress:

The committee, consisting of Mr. Williamson, Mr. Izard and Mr. Madison, to whom were referred sundry papers and memorials from different persons on the subject of literary property, being persuaded that nothing is more properly a man’s own than the fruit of his study, and that the protection and security of literary property would greatly tend to encourage genius, to promote useful discoveries and to the general extension of arts and commerce, beg leave to submit the following report:

Resolved, That it be recommended to the several states, to secure to the authors or publishers of any new books not hitherto printed, being citizens of the United States, and to their heir or assigns executors, administrators and assigns, the copyright of such books for a certain time, not less than fourteen years from the first publication; and to secure to the said authors, if they shall survive the term first mentioned, and to their heirs or assigns executors, administrators and assigns, the copyright of such books for another term of time not less than fourteen years, such copy or exclusive right of printing, publishing and vending the same, to be secured to the original authors, or publishers, or their assigns their executors, administrators and assigns, by such laws and under restrictions as to the several states may seem proper.

If you take a look at the original report, you’ll notice something interesting. The committee had originally referred, in the last sentence, to the exclusive privilege of printing, but crossed out privilege and substituted right.

Report

It’s a fascinating historical tidbit, and one that suggests the case that the Framers considered copyright to be some sort of government privilege is not as strong as Bell claims.

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The Internet and IP Rights: Friends or Foes? — Check out this video of law prof Adam Mossoff at the Hudson Institute this week discussing the intersection between the internet and intellectual property rights like copyright, patent, and trademark.

Aereo at the Supreme Court: Ruling for Broadcasters Won’t Harm Cloud Computing — “Delivering on-demand streaming of copyrighted programming for a fee is the quintessential public performance. The fact that Aereo streams broadcasters’ content over the Internet after pulling it down through thousands of small antennas that make thousands of user-specific copies is irrelevant. Aereo’s retransmission of this content is what matters. Indeed, that is what Aereo does.”

Aereo impacts all creators, not just broadcasters — Speaking of Aereo, over at the Copyright Alliance site, I expand upon a point I made during a panel on Aereo at last week’s Fordham IP Conference. That is, while there are many side issues in the case, the one the Supreme Court is tasked with resolving has to do with the public performance right, which affects all copyright owners. That fact has gone largely ignored.

WIPO issues study on voluntary copyright relinquishment and open licensing — The report looks at the ability of creators to dedicate their work to the public domain in nine different jurisdictions around the world.

Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers — “Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy? Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?”

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ABC v. Aereo: the Supreme Court will reverse the Second Circuit — Hugh Hansen predicts a win for creators in Aereo. If you’re at the Fordham IP Conference today, I’ll be on a panel discussing Aereo this afternoon.

The Supreme Court On Aereo And The Future Of TV — NPR does a segment on Aereo featuring Eleanor Lackman and Michael Carrier, worth a listen!

A Supreme Court ruling against Aereo won’t spell the end of cloud computing — One more item on Aereo, this one from Geoffrey Manne, Ryan Radia & Ben Sperry. “Aereo’s argument ignores Congress’ decision in the Copyright Act of 1976 to expressly define the transmission of a television broadcast ‘by means of any device or process’ to the public as a public performance, ‘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.’ Aereo has built an elaborate system for distributing live high-def broadcast television content to subscribers for a monthly fee—without obtaining permission from, or paying royalties to, the copyright owners in the audiovisual works aired by broadcasters.”

The Gigaom interview: Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza on how “we live in a streaming world” — “Yeah. It’s tough too, because these are your friends. You’re coming up to them, and they’re, ‘What did we earn this last six months?’ Here’s the $100. Here’s the numbers to show it. You do that enough times and you’re like, ‘I don’t really want to be in this part of the business, because it’s kind of depressing.’”

The Bay is burning! Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco’s soul — “Yes, the Luddite movement may have been smashed by the forces of the state and the newly ascendant industrialist bourgeoisie. Yes, the Luddites may never have had the remotest chance of maintaining their pre-industrial way of life in the face of the steam engine. But there is a version of history in which the Luddites were far from unthinking goons. Instead, they were acute critics of their changing times, grasping the first glimpse of the increasingly potent ways in which capital was learning to exploit labor.”

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Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

The cloud took center stage at the oral argument in the Aereo appeal before the Supreme Court this past Tuesday. Several justices expressed concern over how Aereo’s service can be distinguished from a cloud storage service. As they had argued in their reply brief, the petitioners, represented by Paul D. Clement, note that there’s a difference between a service that allows its users to store and access the content they already possess and a service that supplies the content to its users in the first instance. Clement argues that this distinction flows from the “to the public” language of the Transmit Clause:

Here, I think the ultimate statutory text that allows you to differentiate a cloud locker storage from something like what Aereo does is a language to the public. And I do think that in all sorts of places, including the real world, there’s a fundamental difference between a service that allows – that provides new content to all sorts of end-users, essentially any paying stranger, and a service that provides a locker, a storage service.

And I think if you want a real world analogy off of the Internet, I think it’s the basic decision – the difference between a car dealer and a valet parking service. I mean, if you look at it from 30,000 feet, you might think, hey, both of these things provide cars to the public. But if you looked at it more closely, you’d understand, well, if I show up at the car dealership without a car, I’m going to be able to get a car. If I show up at the valet parking service and I don’t own a car, it’s not going to end well for me. . . .

I think there is a very real way in which you would say, you know, at the end of the day, the car dealer’s providing cars to the public, the valet parking service is not. It’s providing a parking service.

Clement’s “real world analogy” looks at the difference between a car dealer and a valet service. He argues that Aereo is like a car dealer because people go there to obtain a car in the first instance. It’s not like a valet service, where you can only get back the car you dropped off. What makes Aereo different than a cloud storage service like Dropbox is that Aereo supplies the content to its users in the first instance. You don’t go to Aereo to park the car you already own; you go to Aereo to buy the car.

Clement argues that whether a transmission is “to the public” turns on who supplies the content:

If all they can do is, just like the valet car parking service, is get back what they put up there, I think you could easily say that that is not to the public. And that is not just me coming up with a clever distinction. That’s the distinction that’s really been drawn in the real world, because not all cloud computing is created equal, and there are some cloud computing services that use cloud computing technology to get new content to people that don’t have it, and they get licenses. And there is other cloud computing that just has locker services and they don’t think they need a license . . . .

This tracks my own argument, and I think it’s a reasonable line to draw—one that has indeed “really been drawn in the real world.” As I mentioned in my last post, the norm is that a service that supplies the content to members of the public in the first instance—whether by public distribution as with iTunes, by public performance as with Spotify, or by public display as with Westlaw—obtains a license to supply this content. The reason the service needs this license is because the content it supplies is being transferred “to the public” in the first instance, thus making it the quintessential public distribution, performance, or display.

These three exclusive rights (public distribution, performance, and display) are all related in that they make directly liable anyone who supplies the content “to the public” in the first instance. All three rights involve transferring the content from the transferor to the transferee where the relationship between the two is a public one. At the end of the transfer, the transferee obtains the content in the first instance, that is, the content in which the transferee has no prior possessory interest. Without a license (or some other defense), the transferor has violated one or more of the copyright owner’s three exclusive rights to supply the content “to the public” in the first instance.

And this is the difference Clement is talking about. A cloud storage service does not supply the content “to the public” in the first instance. Members of the public use a cloud storage service to store and access the content they already have a possessory interest in. It’s the difference between a library, which publicly distributes a book that it lends out, and a safety deposit box, where I can store a book that I already possess for safekeeping. If I later go to the bank to retrieve the book from my safety deposit box, the bank is not publicly distributing the book. The bank instead is my bailee, and I am merely retrieving my property as a bailor. The relationship, in other words, is one of bailment.

This same distinction based on who supplies the content was invoked by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart, arguing on the government’s behalf as an amicus curiae in support of the petitioners:

The second thing that I would like to reinforce in Mr. Clement’s presentation is that there is no reason that a decision in this case should imperil cloud locker services generally . . . .

[T]here are obviously services that provide television programming over the Internet. Some of them are licensed because they recognize that they are publicly performing. If a particular company, for instance, recorded television programs and offered to stream them to anyone who paid the fee or offered to stream them for free and make its money off advertising, that would be a public performance because those companies would be providing content to people who didn’t have it.

I think the basic distinction, the one that at least defines the extremes, is the distinction between the company, whether it be Internet-based or a cable transmitter, that provides content in the first instance and the company that provides consumers with access to content that they already have. If you have a cloud locker service, somebody has bought a digital copy of a song or a movie from some other source, stores it in a locker and asks that it be streamed back, the cloud locker and storage service is not providing the content. It’s providing a mechanism for watching it.

Like the petitioners, the government argues that there’s a simple dichotomy between a service that supplies the content to members of the public in the first instance and one that does not. When the service itself supplies the content that its users can stream over the internet, it’s publicly performing. And when the service merely enables users to stream the content that they already possess, it’s not publicly performing. That’s how you can tell the difference between the two.

Not surprisingly, David C. Frederick, representing Aereo, thinks this simple dichotomy just doesn’t work. Justice Kagan asked Frederick why he thinks liability does not turn on who supplies the content:

Mr. Frederick, why isn’t it sufficient to create a line such as the one Mr. Clement said, which said, you know, do you on the one hand supply or provide the content, that puts you in one box; on the other hand, if you are not supplying or providing the content, if the user is supplying and providing the content, and you are just providing the space, a kind of platform for them to do that and for them potentially to share the content, that puts you in another box?

To which Frederick replied:

Well, Justice Kagan, I note that my friend did not reference the words of the Transmit Clause at all when he offered that distinction. And that’s actually quite important, because in order to get there, you have to make up words to put them in the Transmit Clause. But even if you were to think that that was good for a policy reason, you would still have to explain why the hundreds of thousands of people that are subscribers to Aereo’s service don’t have exactly the same fair use right to get over-the-air broadcast content that all of those people who are not Aereo subscribers but they happen to have a home antenna and a DVR. Those people have every bit as right to get that access. And the fact that they are doing it doesn’t make their antenna or their antenna provider a content provider.

As to his first claim, namely, that Clement “did not reference the words of the Transmit Clause,” I don’t think this is true. As noted above, Clement explicitly said his argument flowed from the “to the public” language in the Transmit Clause. What makes it “to the public” is the fact that the content is being supplied in the first instance to members of the public. I would add that this is the same rule that applies whether discussing the public distribution, performance, or display right. We’re interested in whether the transferor has supplied the transferee, a member of the public, with the content in the first instance. That’s what makes it “to the public.”

As to his second argument, I have to first point out that I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “fair use right.” As I explained in a prior post, fair use is a privilege, not a right. There is no affirmative right to make a copy. The only right is the copyright owner’s exclusive right to exclude others from making a copy. Regardless, the question isn’t whether a home user can set up an antenna and DVR to time-shift over-the-air broadcasts. That’s the reproduction right, which does not involve transferring the content from one party to a member of the public. The transfer of the content in that scenario comes from the over-the-air broadcast, which is a licensed public performance on the broadcaster’s part. And it needs to be licensed because the broadcaster is supplying the content “to the public” in the first instance.

But that’s not the issue here with Aereo. The issue is whether Aereo is publicly performing when the content is transmitted from Aereo’s service to members of the public. This is the transmission we are looking at, not the prior over-the-air transmission “to the public” from the broadcaster. The difference between this scenario and the home antenna and DVR scenario is that here Aereo is a middleman between the broadcaster and the member of the public. The transmission doesn’t go directly from the broadcaster to the member of the public; it goes from the broadcaster to Aereo to the member of the public. And the difference between the broadcaster and Aereo is that only the broadcaster has a license to publicly perform, i.e., to supply the content “to the public” in the first instance.

So the question is really whether Aereo is publicly performing by supplying the content to members of the public in the first instance. It seems clear to me that it is. Aereo’s service is “any device or process” that transmits copyrighted works “to the public.” Members of the public use Aereo to obtain the content in the first instance. And the fact that Aereo also enables its subscribers to make copies is beside the point. Those copies are just part of the “device or process” that Aereo uses to supply the content “to the public.” They don’t change the fact that Aereo is still engaging in the quintessential public performance, and Aereo can’t escape liability for copying by way of utilizing more copies.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline

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