Ninth Circuit revives software download copyright infringement case

The main issue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Design Data Corp. v. Unigate Enterprise was whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor on the theory that one unauthorized download of a copy of plaintiff’s software was a de minimis infringement. The court held that the grant of summary judgment was not proper and sent the case back to the lower court.

Defendant claimed that it downloaded an authorized free trial version of the plaintiff’s software. But plaintiff brought forward evidence that it did not offer free trial versions. And plaintiff found evidence of the installation of two versions of its software on defendant’s computer systems, as well as patches designed to circumvent the software’s licensing requirements.

The Ninth Circuit determined that on this record, important questions of fact remained to be resolved surrounding the downloading and use of the software. Importantly, the appellate court held that the trial court committed error in determining that any infringement would have been merely de minimis. It was a mistake to have granted summary judgment in light of “the overwhelming thrust of authority” that upholds liability even under circumstances where use of a copyrighted work is of minimal consequence.

Another interesting issue before the court was whether defendant’s distribution of output files generated by its contractor’s use of an unauthorized copy of the software was actionable as infringement. The court affirmed summary judgment on this issue. It noted that copyright protection may extend to a program’s output if the program does the “lion’s share” of the work, with the user’s role being so “marginal” that the output reflects the program’s contents. But in this case, plaintiff did not put forth enough evidence to meet this standard, so the appellate court let stand the grant of summary judgment in defendant’s favor on this issue.

Design Data Corp. v. Unigate Enterprise, Inc
. — F.3d —, 2017 WL 541010 (9th Cir. Feb. 9, 2017)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Is a copyright registration required before filing an infringement lawsuit?

It depends on what court you are in. In the Western District of Wisconsin, you have to have the registration certificate in hand.

Plaintiff photographer sued defendant sports memorabilia dealers for infringement of the copyright in a photo of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Certain defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that since he had not obtained a copyright registration certificate before filing suit, plaintiff had not satisfied this required precondition for making a copyright infringement claim.

The court granted the motion, holding that under 17 USC 411(a)‘s plain meaning, it is not sufficient for a plaintiff to simply allege it has filed an application to register the infringed copyright before filing suit. Instead, the statute’s language requires that a registration “has been made”.

Copyright litigants should note that there currently exists a circuit split on this issue — whether an application or actual registration –- is sufficient to meet the precondition for bringing an infringement action. And even district courts within the same circuit have differed on the reading of Section 411(a) (this is the case in the Seventh Circuit). The issue even splits well known copyright commentators William Patry and (the late) Melville Nimmer. Patry reads the statute to require registration certificate in hand, while Nimmer would read it to require only that an application has been filed.

The safer route, absent guidance from an authoritative appellate court, a Supreme Court decision, or a clarifying amendment to the Copyright Act, a plaintiff should make sure it has a registration certificate in hand before filing suit. The Copyright Office, for a fee, will process applications on an expedited basis. That extra fee is certainly more affordable than having the litigation matter hung up and possibly dismissed.

Robbins v. Svehla, 2016 WL 6900719 (W.D. Wis. November 22, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Website operator faces copyright liability over use of allegedly infringing third party add-on

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The recent case of Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC illustrates some important risks of which any purchaser of third-party technology services or deliverables should be aware. The defendant in this case faces potential copyright liability (and the expenses associated with defending such claims) arising from technology that a third party vendor provided for defendant to enhance defendants’ website.

Plaintiff’s software

Plaintiff developed software that allows website operators to display video of a personal “host” to welcome online visitors to the website. A website operator implements plaintiff’s software by embedding an HTML script tag in the code of its website. The added code links the website to a copy of plaintiff’s software stored on the same server as the customer’s website or on a different server. When a user points his or her browser to the web page, the embedded HTML script tag causes the distribution of plaintiff’s software, which in turn causes the personal host video to be displayed. The browser saves plaintiff’s software into cache or hard drive or both, and automatically loads the software into RAM.

Defendants’ alleged infringement

Defendants allegedly used an infringing version of plaintiff’s software to display a spokesperson video on its website. Specifically, defendants claim that they contracted with a third party vendor that processed video that defendants provided, then sent defendants HTML code which defendants implemented into their site. When a user visited defendants’ website, his or her browser would call on the allegedly infringing code, which was stored on the third party vendor’s server. This caused a copy of the allegedly infringing software to be stored on the visitor’s computer in cache, memory, or its hard drive.

The proceedings

Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court denied most of the motion to dismiss, leaving the majority of copyright-related claims remaining in the case. It granted the motion to dismiss on the question of contributory liability.

Direct copyright infringement

Defendants raised several arguments as to why they should not be liable for direct copyright infringement . Although the court rejected each of these arguments, it observed that defendants’ most promising argument was that any infringement was actually done by the third party vendor that provided the technology to defendants. In this part of its opinion, the court considered the holdings of Perfect 10 v. Amazon, 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007) and other cases that involved in-line linking. The court observed that the reasoning of these cases appeared to limit plaintiff’s ability to hold defendants liable for direct infringement of plaintiffs distribution right. Nonetheless, the record did not have enough information for the court to definitively make a determination at this early stage. Accordingly, the court decided to permit discovery on the relationship between the third-party technology vendor and he allegedly infringing software.

The court also rejected defendants’ other arguments against liability for direct infringement. It found unpersuasive defendants’ arguments that the software was never downloaded. On this point, the court found that the complaint had sufficiently alleged that the infringing software was automatically saved into the cache or hard drives and automatically loaded into computer memory or RAM of visitors to defendants’ website. The court also rejected defendants’ arguments that the DMCA Safe Harbors protected them from liability, that any copying was only de minimis, and that previous lawsuits against the third-party technology provider should relieve defendants from liability.

Contributory infringement

On the question of contributory liability, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. To bring a claim for contributory infringement, a plaintiff must allege both that its copyrighted work was directly infringed and that the defendant, with knowledge of the infringing activity, induced, caused, or materially contributed to the infringing conduct of another. The court found that plaintiffs had alleged only a bare legal conclusion that defendants knew or had reason to know they were using an infringing version of the software. Without strong enough allegations on the knowledge element of contributory infringement, this claim failed.

Vicarious infringement

Vicarious liability for copyright infringement may be imposed where a defendant profits directly from the infringement and has a right and ability to supervise the direct infringer, even if the defendant initially lacks knowledge of the infringement. The court denied the motion to dismiss on this point, as plaintiff plausibly alleged that defendants controlled the allegedly unlawful distribution of copies of plaintiff’s software to its website visitors. The court drew inferences in plaintiff’s favor, noting the allegation that defendants did modify their website to include code linking to the allegedly infringing software. Plaintiffs also successfully alleged that defendants profited from the use of the infringing software in that having the video host captured, held and prolonged the attention of the average online user, and did in fact generate revenues and profits for defendants. On this point, the court look to Arista Records v. MP3Board, 2002 WL 1997918 (S.D.N.Y. August 28,2002), which stands for the proposition that “infringement which increases a defendant’s user base or otherwise acts as a draw for customers constitutes a direct financial interest.”

Implications

In the course of negotiating technology development and service agreements, a customer should seek to get assurances from its vendor that any technology being provided will not infringe third party intellectual property rights. It is critically important to, were possible, have the vendor warrant and represent that the deliverables are non-infringing. It is equally important, still from the customer’s perspective, to have the vendor obligate itself to indemnify the customer in the event there are third party claims of intellectual property infringement. Although from this opinion we do not see all the facts, it appears this could be a situation where the defendant/customer is being taken to task and having to incur needless expense for the use of infringing software provided by its vendor. If that is the case, it is an unfortunate situation, one which a prudent customer of technology services would be well advised to seek to avoid.

Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC, 2016 WL 4766344 (S.D.N.Y., September 13, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user J E Theriot  under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Cruz campaign still facing copyright and breach of contract liability over songs used in political ads

Court denies motion to dismiss copyright and breach of contract claims over songs used in YouTube and TV political ads.

Months after Ted Cruz ended his presidential bid, his campaign, and the advertising company hired to create ads for the campaign, still face liability over two songs used in YouTube and television ads. A federal court in Washington state has denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss copyright infringement and breach of contract claims brought against them.

An employee of the Cruz campaign’s advertising company allegedly downloaded two songs from Audiosocket, and then used those songs in two separate campaign ads. Audiosocket and the copyright holders sued for infringement and breach of the licensing agreements under which the songs were provided.

The court rejected the defendants’ arguments. It held that the plaintiffs had adequately pled the existence of their copyright registrations, and that the claims for breach of the licensing agreement were not preempted by the Copyright Act. Because the licensing agreement expressly prohibited the songs to be used for political purposes, the breach of contract claims were not “equivalent” to a copyright infringement claim, and therefore not subject to preemption under 17 USC 301.

The case is a reminder of the risks that companies and organizations face when hiring outside vendors to procure and create content. The hiring party should seek, at minimum, to ensure that the vendor has obtained the appropriate rights in the content it will integrate into the deliverables provided under the arrangement. And the vendor should utilize appropriate internal protocols and form documents to help ensure that the content it provides to its customer does not infringe. That kind of diligence will help avoid unpleasant situations between vendor and customer that arise when third parties claim against both of them that intellectual property rights have been infringed.

Leopona, Inc. v. Cruz For President, 2016 WL 3670596 (W.D. Washington, July 11, 2016)

No statutory damages in online copyright case where infringement continued after copyright registration

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If a copyright infringement begins before the plaintiff registers its copyright, and continues after the date of registration, can the plaintiff recover its attorney’s fees and statutory damages for the infringement that occurs after registration? The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana recently considered that question in the case of Bell v. Turner, 2016 WL 1270221 (S.D. Ind. March 31, 2016).

The prospect of recovering statutory damages and attorney’s fees is a big motivator for copyright plaintiffs. The Copyright Act (at 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(1)) provides that a plaintiff can receive an award of statutory damages — in lieu of actual damages and profits — in a sum not less than $750 or more than $30,000 for each infringement. If the copyright infringement is willful, “the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to an award of not more than $150,000.” And 17 U.S.C. § 505 provides that a successful party in a copyright action can recover its costs and attorney’s fees in the court’s discretion.

But statutory damages and attorney’s fees are only available if certain conditions are met. The Copyright Act precludes a plaintiff from obtaining statutory damages and attorney’s fees if the infringement of the work commenced after publication but before registration. The Copyright Act provides, at 17 U.S.C. § 412(2), that “no award of statutory damages or attorney’s fees…shall be made for…any infringement of copyright commenced after first publication of the work and before the effective date of its registration, unless such registration is made within three months after the first publication of the work”.

In Bell v. Turner, the court granted summary judgment to the defendant on the issue of whether plaintiff was entitled to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Plaintiff first published his photo of the Indianapolis skyline online in 2000. In 2009, defendant copied the photo and placed it on his website. In 2011, plaintiff registered the copyright in the work, but defendant left his copy of the photo online, even after the work was registered.

In granting summary judgment to defendant, the court cited to Derek Andrew, Inc. v. Poof Apparel Corp., 528 F.3d 696 (9th Cir. 2009) and observed that “the first act of infringement in a series of ongoing infringements of the same kind marks the commencement of one continuing infringement under § 412.” Because the defendant posted the photo online more than three months before the date plaintiff registered the work, plaintiff was not entitled to recover statutory damages or attorney’s fees, even though the infringement continued after the date of registration.

Bell v. Turner, 2016 WL 1270221 (S.D. Ind. March 31, 2016)


Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Website operator not liable for copyright infringement despite lack of DMCA safe harbor protection

Online platforms that allow user-generated content should take advantage of the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protect the platform in the event of a third party claim of copyright infringement over the user-generated content. But the recent case of BWP Media USA, Inc. v. T&S Software Associates, Inc., 2016 WL 1248908 (N.D. Tex., March 25, 2016) shows that a platform may still avoid liability for infringement even if it has not availed itself of the benefits of the DMCA.

Plaintiff copyright holders sued defendant online forum board operator for direct and vicarious copyright infringement, over photos uploaded by users of the online forum board. Defendant moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion. The defendant successfully defeated these claims of copyright infringement even though it had not met the DMCA safe harbor requirement of designating an agent with the Copyright Office to receive takedown notices.

Direct Infringement

The court found there was no triable issue on plaintiffs’ claim that defendant was liable for direct infringement, because the parties did not dispute that defendant played no direct role in uploading the photos. Citing the seminal case of Religious Tech. Ctr. v. Netcom OnLine Comm’cn Servs., 907 F, Supp. 1361 (N.D.Cal. 1995), the court observed that “making an internet company liable for direct copyright infringement simply because it gave users access to copyrighted material posted by others would create unreasonable liability.”

Vicarious Liability

A defendant may be vicariously liable for copyright infringement where it “profits directly from the infringement and has a right and ability to supervise the direct infringer, even if the defendant initially lacks knowledge of the infringement.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005). In this case, the court found that although plaintiffs contended that (1) the copyrighted photographs were displayed alongside paid advertising, (2) defendant received revenue from the paid advertising on its forum, and (3) the revenue received was based, in part, on the website traffic, plaintiff failed to point to any evidence in the record showing that defendant directly profited from the infringing conduct.

Observation: DMCA Safe Harbor Not Needed Here

Online service providers that make their platforms available for the storage of user-generated content (even if such ability is trivial, e.g., allowing users to upload profile pictures) are encouraged to take the appropriate steps to place the service provider within the protections of DMCA safe harbor. These steps include providing appropriate information in the platform’s terms of service, employing internal processes to handle takedown requests and repeat infringers, having a plan in place for dealing with counternotifications, and designating an agent with the Copyright Office to receive takedown notices. Being in the safe harbor means that the service provider has an affirmative defense if it is sued by a third party copyright holder for infringement causaed by the platform’s users.

Many have mistakenly believed that if a service provider fails to get safe harbor protection, it is automatically liable for infringement occasioned by user generated content uploaded to the service. That is not true, and the BWP Media case serves as an example. A copyright-owning plaintiff must still establish the elements of infringement against the service provider — whether for direct infringement or under a theory of secondary liability (like vicarious infringement) — even if the defendant does not find itself within the DMCA safe harbor.

BWP Media USA, Inc. v. T&S Software Associates, Inc., 2016 WL 1248908 (N.D. Tex., March 25, 2016)


Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Digital locker service not liable for copyright infringement based on user download of unlicensed ebook

digital locker

A boon for cloud service providers: Court decision protects locker service from infringement over user’s storage and downloading of unlicensed copy of ebook.

Plaintiff-author granted a license to defendant-digital locker service, authorizing users of defendant’s services to store and download sample copies of plaintiff’s ebook. Plaintiff later terminated the license. On two separate occasions, one of defendant’s customers — who had acquired a sample copy of the ebook during the license period — downloaded her sample copy from defendant’s locker storage service and onto her e-reader device. Plaintiff filed suit, claiming these post-license termination customer downloads amounted to direct and contributory infringement by the file locker service.

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The court granted defendant’s motion and denied plaintiff’s motion.

As to the question of direct infringement, the court relied heavily on Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings, 536 F.3d 121 (2nd Cir. 2008) to hold that a lack of evidence of defendant’s “volitional conduct” in distributing and reproducing the downloaded copies precluded a claim for direct infringement. Quoting from Capitol Records v. ReDigi, 934 F.Supp.2d 640 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), the court found that defendant “did not have a ‘fundamental and deliberate role,” such that it was transformed ‘from a passive provider of a space in which infringing activities happened to occur to an active participant in the process of copyright infringement.’”

Plaintiff’s contributory infringement claim failed under the “substantial noninfringing uses” test (the “Sony-Betamax Rule”) set out in Sony v. Universal, 464 U.S. 417 (1984). The court held that defendant could not be held liable for contributory infringement because its digital locker systems was capable of substantial non-infringing uses, and indeed was used for commercially significant noninfringing uses.

Smith v. BarnesandNoble.com, No. 2015 WL 6681145 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2, 2015)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alex Thomson under this Creative Commons license.

Is a DMCA subpoena to identify unknown infringers valid if the infringement has ended?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) is well-known for its notice and takedown provisions. But the DMCA provides a number of other interesting mechanisms, including a procedure for potential copyright plaintiffs to send subpoenas to online service providers to learn the identity of users who posted infringing content to that service. A recent case involving some subpoenas that a copyright owner sent to eBay examines the relationship between the notice and takedown procedures on one hand, and the subpoena mechanism on the other. The question before the court was whether a DMCA subpoena is valid if, by the time it is served on the online service provider, that online service provider has already removed or has disabled access to that content.

Section 512(h) (17 U.S.C. 512(h)) spells out the DMCA subpoena process, and how it relates to the notice and takedown provisions. An online service provider must act expeditiously to identify the user who uploaded infringing content “[u]pon receipt of the issued subpoena, either accompanying or subsequent to the receipt of a [takedown request].” That plain language seems straightforward — an online service provider has to provide the identifying information in response to any subpoena it receives either with or subsequent to a takedown notice.

But it was not so straightforward in a 2011 case, where some confusing facts made for some confusing law. In Maximized Living, Inc., v. Google, Inc., 2011 WL 6749017 (N.D. Cal. December 22, 2011), the copyright holder sent a subpoena to the online service provider after the copyright holder had sent a DMCA takedown notice. That would appear to comport with the statute — the subpoena came subsequent to the takedown notice. But the problem in that case was that the takedown notice was not valid. By the time it was sent, the alleged infringer had already removed the infringing content. From that, the Maximized Living case pronounced that “the subpoena power of §512(h) is limited to currently infringing activity and does not reach former infringing activity that has ceased and thus can no longer be removed or disabled.”

In the recent case of In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., eBay, as the recipient of subpoenas to identify some of its users, picked up on the Maximized Living holding to argue that it did not have to answer the subpoenas because it had already taken down the offending content pursuant to previous takedown notices. Since the subpoenas did not relate to “currently infringing activity,” eBay argued à la Maximized Living, that the subpoenas had not been issued under §512(h)’s power and were therefore invalid.

The court rejected eBay’s argument. The key distinction in this case was that, unlike in Maximized Living, the takedown notices in this case, when they issued, related to content that was on the eBay servers at the time the takedown notices were issued. Granted, some of those takedown notices went all the way back to early 2012 (query whether the subpoena should be valid if it would only uncover the identity of an infringer for whom the 3-year copyright statute of limitations had passed; but that wasn’t before the court).

So to simply state the rule in this case — for a DMCA subpoena to be valid, it has to relate to a valid DMCA takedown notice. That DMCA takedown notice is not valid unless it was served at a time when infringing content resided on the service. An online service provider cannot avoid the obligation of responding to a subpoena by taking down the content, thereby causing there to be no “currently infringing activity”. Such a rule would, as the court observed, cause the online service provider’s safe harbor protection to also shield the alleged infringer from being identified. That would indeed be an odd application of the DMCA’s protection. The court in this case avoided that outcome.

In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., 2015 WL 3555270 (S.D. Cal. June 5, 2015).

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Galvez under this Creative Commons license.

Microsoft letter to GitHub over DRM-free music software is not the first copyright-ironic action against an intermediary

TorrentFreak has reported that Microsoft demanded that GitHub take the code repository of an app that provides access to unprotected Xbox Music tracks. Some are calling it ironic, given that Microsoft is offering access to DRM-free music through its API.

The situation is reminiscent (though not legally identical) to the weirdness we observed way back in 2006 when YouTube asked TechCruch to take down a tool that allowed people to download video clips. We recognized early on that YouTube was a copyright renegade. So it was surprising that it would take such an aggressive tactic toward purveyors of software that would make use of copyrighted works easier.

The Microsoft of today is certainly not the YouTube of 2006. So naturally its interests are different. But comparing the two scenarios yields the common conundrum of how one company that wants to more smoothly make content available deals with other technologies and platforms that do the same thing, but cut out the main monetizing opportunity.

It could be a phenomenon of copyright’s outdatedness. Both YouTube and Microsoft took action against others who were distributing technologies that touched on infringement by means of making copies of the works. That will likely remain an important protection under copyright law even after meaningful reform. But what is really at stake is the right to access content. If that were a meaningful right under the Copyright Act, companies would be less likely to take enforcement actions that appear on the surface to be ironic.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media.

Is the Aereo decision a setback for innovation?

One of the big questions preceding the Supreme Court’s decision in the Aereo case earlier this week was whether a holding against Aereo would put cloud services into such a legally precarious position that the innovation and investment climate would chill. While the decision clearly makes Aereo’s use of its technology illegal, one should not be too quick to foretell a drastic impact on all hosted services. Here are some reasons why.

What cloud?

Let’s be clear about what we mean by “the cloud” in this context. Aereo’s technical model – which the court found to infringe copyright – captured over-the-air television content using one tiny antenna per customer, transcoded that content into one copy per customer, which Aereo stored and then streamed on-demand to the customer. The court found that model bore an “overwhelming likeness to the cable companies targeted by the [1976 Copyright Act]” to an extent that Aereo was “for all practical purposes a traditional cable system.” Aereo’s technological attempts such as the one-copy-per-customer method that it used to distinguish itself from traditional cable services were immaterial to the court. Aereo looked like a cable company, so the court treated it as one, with all the copyright consequences that go along with that status.

Aereo was a cloud service inasmuch as it stored the TV content and served it to its users when those users initiated the performances. It was the cable-like functions that got it into trouble, not necessarily the cloud-provider functions. That arguably leaves the rest of what we consider cloud services – online collaboration tools, centralized communications systems, most hosted applications, and the like – outside the scope of the court’s decision. Most software-as-a-service models, whether to the consumer or at the enterprise level, are unlike cable systems and thus likely stand clear of the sweep of the Aereo sickle.

The technology could live on.

One must also be sure to recognize that the court’s decision did not kill the technology altogether, but instead killed the use of the technology in the hands of one who does not have ownership or license to the content being delivered. Since the court found that Aereo’s service was “substantially similar” to cable systems, Aereo, its successors, or other players in the space could look to monetize the technology while paying the compulsory licenses that Section 111 of the Copyright Act spells out in dizzying complexity. Or the broadcasters and other content stakeholders could acquire Aereo-like technology and use it to supplement the other means of content delivery currently at play. In either scenario, the needs for investment and innovation in providing infrastructure (as well as the need for clarity on network neutrality) remain firmly intact.

The real likely effect.

This is not to say that Aereo will have no effect on development of technology in areas outside the particular facts of the case. The court’s decision expands the class of online intermediaries who may be liable for direct copyright infringement. In that respect, the case differs from other important technology-provider copyright cases like the Betamax case, Grokster and the Cablevision case. In those cases, the main question before the courts was whether the providers were secondarily liable for the infringement committed by their users. In Aereo, however, the question was whether Aereo itself was liable for infringement committed by providing the technology to others. The Supreme Court held that Aereo was a direct infringer because its functionality so closely resembled a cable company.

So the court has given copyright plaintiffs some new, additional angles to consider when pursuing infringement litigation against technology providers. Does the technology so resemble the technical model of a cable delivery system, particularly from the perspective of the end user, such that it de facto publicly performs the works delivered by the system? If so, then the Aereo test forbids it. Moreover, the case fuzzies the relatively bright line that began to be drawn almost 20 years ago with Religious Technology Center v. Netcom, requiring that for an internet intermediary to be liable for direct infringement, it need undertake some volitional conduct in furtherance of the infringement. That fuzziness will no doubt embolden some plaintiffs who otherwise would not have seen the potential for a cause of action against future defendant-innovators.

In reality, few platforms are likely to actually get “Aereoed” in litigation. The ones at greatest risk will be those that facilitate access to streaming content provided by others. But the fact that ultimate liability may not lie against a provider will likely do little to stop aggressive copyright plaintiffs from trying out the theory against all forms of remote storage providers. That’s the problem Justice Scalia identified in his dissent when he said the decision “will sow confusion for years to come.” Let’s hope that’s mostly an overstatement.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

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