Broadcasters ask full Second Circuit to review panel’s decision allowing Aereo to continue to operate pending trial of infringement claim

We told you the Aereo saga wasn’t over. 

Having lost the most recent (but certainly not the last) round in their litigation war with Aereo, the broadcast plaintiffs have filed a “petition for rehearing en banc” with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In that petition, the broadcasters are asking the full 13-member court to review the 2-1 decision of a three-judge panel that affirmed a lower court ruling allowing Aereo to continue to operate while the trial of the case moves ahead.

[Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the petition, let’s take a brief introductory side trip into the world of appellate procedure. Each of the 13 federal courts of appeals consists of between six (in the First Circuit, covering New England) and 29 (in the Ninth Circuit, which sprawls across nine western states and a couple of territories) judges. When an appeal is filed, it is normally heard by a panel consisting of three judges from the particular circuit court where the appeal is filed. 

After the panel issues its decision, if the losing party believes that that decision was wrong, the loser has three options. It can ask: (1) the three judges to re-think their disposition of the case; (2) all the judges in the circuit, sitting “en banc”, to review the panel’s decision; or (3) the Supreme Court to look the case over. Supreme Court review is usually the longest of long shots. Similarly, since the panel has just deliberated over the issue and come up with the result at hand, it’s usually a pretty good bet that the panel won’t be eager to reverse itself. But en banc review brings a bunch of different judges into the mix, so it presents at least some source of hope to the party unhappy about the panel decision.

But the rules are set up to make en banc review hard to get.

You’ve first got to argue with a straight face that en banc review is necessary either to maintain “uniformity of the court’s decisions” or to address a “question of exceptional importance”. If you can get past that hurdle, you’re still not home. The court isn’t obligated to give you the time of day unless at least one judge calls for a vote as to whether or not the case should be heard en banc. If such a call is made, then all the judges vote and, if a majority supports en banc review, the en banc process kicks in. That process entails another round of briefs and oral argument presented to all the judges on the particular circuit in question. Usually, but not invariably, the panel’s judgment gets vacated once the full court decides to review it en banc.]

According to the broadcasters’ petition, the decision allowing Aereo to keep operating “will wreak commercial havoc by allowing new and existing distributors to design around [the requirement to get a license] and profit from the delivery of copyrighted programming while paying nothing for it.” If that’s not dire enough for you, they also claim that the decision could cause “the entire retransmission licensing regime” to be “swallow[ed]”.   The swallowing (according to the petitioners) will occur thanks to Aereo-like set-ups supposedly being contemplated by Time Warner Cable and Dish Network, and the recent statements made by one of their own – Newscorp COO Chase Carey’s threat to convert the Fox Network to a subscription-based cable channel.

The broadcasters’ petition presents a two-fold attack. 

First, it argues that the panel’s 2-1 ruling misinterprets the Copyright Act. This argument depends to a great degree on linguistic subtleties, like whether the terms “transmission” and “performance” were intended by Congress to mean the same thing. According to the petition, the Act clearly contemplated that “‘transmissions’ and ‘performances’ are not the same thing” – “the ‘performance’ is the thing that is communicated and the transmission is the means of communicating it.” This, of course, is a distinction made by dissenting Judge Denny Chin in the earlier Aereo decision. (Oh yeah, it’s also a distinction made by the United States District Court for the Central District of California in the AereoKiller case.) It is likely to be the predominant legal issue when the case is ultimately resolved (with the predominant – and only – factual issue being whether Aereo can actually do what it claims with just one antenna per subscriber).

But the challenged interpretation of the Copyright Act itself derived from the Second Circuit’s 2008 Cablevision decision on which Aereo relies to justify its operations as legal. So in a separate section the broadcasters’ petition takes dead aim on the rationale of the Cablevision decision as well.

As the broadcasters see it, Cablevision was based on a “false premise” and the earlier decision in Aereo compounds the error in several ways.

The three-judge Cablevision panel’s decision was based in large measure on the notion of a hypothetical “hapless customer” who wanted to use the Cablevision remote DVR service to record a program in his den but play it back in his bedroom. The Cablevision panel concluded that that consumer wasn’t engaging in a public performance.  Within the context posited by the panel, the broadcasters agree with its conclusion: “a subscriber who records a program in his den and watches it in his bedroom is not transmitting the program to the public; he is transmitting it to himself”.   

But, say the broadcasters, that’s not the case with Aereo’s system, which doesn’t simply involve one person retransmitting to himself. Rather, third parties are involved; it’s important to focus on who transmits and who receives a given performance.

The Petition also homes in on Cablevision’s notion that aggregation of individual transmissions could create a public performance only if they came from a single master copy. But, the broadcasters observe, the all-important Transmit Clause in Section 117 of the Copyright Act says nothing about master copies. The broadcasters argue that “a far better reading of the Transmit Clause would aggregate all transmissions of the same performance of a work by the same transmitter to members of the public, treating them collectively as a public performance regardless of whether the source is one or many copies.” Under this interpretation, Aereo, ivi, cable systems, and satellite services would all require a license. 

Having thoroughly beaten up on the Cablevision rationale, though, the broadcasters stop short of arguing that that decision should be discarded.  In a deft pirouette, they urge that “[w]hile the reasoning of Cablevision . . . needs to be rejected, that does not mean there cannot be private performances.” In other words, the petitioners are willing to concede that the result in Cablevision was correct – that is, the “hapless customer” should be permitted to record a program in his den and watch it in his bedroom without incurring the wrath of the Copyright Police. But the path by which the Cablevision court reached that result was flawed. We’re guessing that this delicately crafted argument is intended to attract the broadest possible support across all the Second Circuit’s judges, including those who would prefer not to overrule the Cablevision case.

So, what now? We sit back and wait to see whether the Second Circuit agrees to en banc review. If it doesn’t, the case stays in its current posture: Aereo can continue to operate while the trial of the broadcasters’ claims proceeds before the district court. If the Second Circuit takes the en banc appeal, in all likelihood Aereo’s operation will be stopped pending the outcome of that process. 

But regardless of how any of this turns out, we still think it’s likely that the underlying copyright issue here will eventually be resolved either by the Supreme Court or by Congress. The issue is already in play in both the Second Circuit, with the Aereo case, and the Ninth Circuit, with the AereoKiller case. And, since Aereo is promising to roll its service in more markets in the near future, it’s entirely possible that other cases will be brought in other circuits as well. Obviously, the issue has national implications demanding a uniform, national, resolution. Check back here for updates.