Two Cases Decided by the Supremes Today

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Posted: 06/25/2014

Today, the Supreme Court released its opinion in the American Broadcasting v. Aereo case. Aereo had sold to subscribers a technology that permitted subscribers to watch television programs via the Internet at approximately the same time the programs were broadcast over the air. The Supremes decided this was copyright infringement. They concluded in this manner by determining, based on the current 1976 Copyright Act, that such dissemination of the broadcast programs equated to a “performance “ “to the public.” As part of the general bundle of copyrights, copyright holders have the sole authority to perform their copyrighted works in public. Therefore, today the Court analyzed whether Aereo had committed copyright infringement by “performing” copyrighted works “to the public.”

In determining whether Aereo had made a performance, the Court cited the Transmit Clause that conveys transmitting a performance occurs when it is communicated by any device or process whereby images or sounds are received beyond the place from which they are sent. Thus, the Court determined Aereo’s dissemination of the programing was a performance because it was receiving and making a copy of broadcasts from another location. Then, Aereo subscribers could watch said broadcasts when they wanted. The Court further reasoned that when an Aereo subscriber wants to watch a program, Aereo then streamed the program over the Internet to that subscriber. Aereo therefore communicated to the subscriber via a device or process the programs images and sounds. Therefore, Aereo in effect transmitted a performance whenever its subscribers watch a program.

Did Aereo perform these copyrighted works in public? The Court held yes, because the Copyright Act declares that an entity performs publicly when it performs at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered. Thus, the Court reasoned “public” consists of a large group of people outside of family and friends. The Court further reasoned that it did not matter that subscribers may be spread out over large geographic locations, the receiving of the content is still by the “public.” This is because the Transmit Clause conveys that an entity may perform publicly 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. Thus, the Court held that Aereo performed copyrighted works to the public without permission or paying for a license.

Also, today, in Riley v. California, the Supremes held that police need a warrant to search cell phones. In this decision, the Court noted that privacy outweighs this type of a search; law enforcement has the technological means of tracking suspicious phones; and due to the large storage capacity of modern phones, such a search would give way to an enormous digital record that might not outweigh one’s privacy. Forbes has a good blog post about this case.