25 June 2014

Law in Plain English: ABC, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc.

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogABC, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc.

Argument: Apr 22, 2014 (Aud.)

Aereo's array of dime-sized antennas.
Discussion: Aereo uses thousands of individual antennas to receive broadcast television channels, and Aereo assigns an individual antenna to each of its subscribers. Aereo transmits to its subscribers broadcast television programs over the internet for a monthly subscription fee, but it does not have any license from copyright holders to record or transmit their programs. The 1976 Copyright Act gives copyright owners an exclusive right "in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly." 17 U.S.C. § 106(4). ABC and other holders of copyrights in programs broadcast on network television moved for a preliminary injunction barring Aereo from transmitting programs to its subscribers while the programs are still airing, claiming that those transmissions infringe their exclusive right to publicly perform their works, as defined by 17 U.S.C. § 101.  The District Court denied the motion. It concluded that, although the Plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood that they would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a preliminary injunction,an injunction would severely harm Aereo, likely ending its business. The balance of hardships did not tip "decidedly" in favor of the Plaintiffs and an injunction "would not disserve the public interest." The Second Circuit affirmed, finding that Aereo's transmissions of unique copies of broadcast television programs created at its users' requests and transmitted while the programs are still airing on broadcast television are not "public performances" of the Plaintiffs' copyrighted works.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether a company “publicly performs” a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet.

Holding: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo performs petitioners’ works publicly within the meaning of the Transmit Clause. The practical impact of this decision is that Aereo's business model is illegal.

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