Why Do So Many People Describe Aereo 'Complying' With Copyright Law As The Company 'Circumventing' Copyright Law?
from the the-law-is-the-problem dept
We mentioned this briefly in our writeup of the oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the Aereo case, but I wanted to focus in on one particularly annoying issue that has come up repeatedly throughout this company’s history: the idea that its compliance with the law is actually the company circumventing the law. A perfect example of this is an incredibly ill-informed opinion piece for New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose that declares, based on a near total misunderstanding of the case, that the Supreme Court should shut down Aereo because its 10,000 antennas are a cheap “copyright-avoidance gimmick.”
But that’s simply incorrect. It’s actually 100% the opposite. We’ll fully admit, as that article does, that the setup of Aereo is simply insane from a technology standpoint. There is no good reason at all to design the technology this way. But the reason they’re doing this is not to avoid copyright but to comply with it. If you think that this is insane (and you’re right) the answer is not to whine about what Aereo is doing, but to note that it’s copyright law that leads to this bizarre result. Don’t blame Aereo for following exactly what the law says, and then say it’s a “gimmick.” Blame the law for forcing Aereo down this path.
Of course, it’s one thing for an uninformed magazine columnist to make this argument… but quite another for Supreme Court justices to do so themselves. And tragically, in the oral arguments, a few of them appeared to be coming close to making that kind of argument (though not so ridiculously as the column above). The worst offender was Chief Justice Roberts, who asked:
All I’m trying to get at, and I’m not saying it’s outcome determinative or necessarily bad, I’m just saying your technological model is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with, which is fine. I mean, that’s — you know, lawyers do that.
Note the twisting here. Complying with the law is now “circumventing legal prohibitions.” Justices Ginsburg and Scalia both also asked about whether or not the technology decisions had any technological purpose, or if they were solely about the law (though, at least both questioned if the choices were about “complying” with the law). But the implication that is being raised (and has been explicitly raised by others) is that in setting up this “a Rube Goldberg–like contrivance” (as 2nd Circuit judge Denny Chin called Aereo in his dissent to the company’s victory in that court) it means that they’re somehow violating the law by meticulously complying with it.
And that’s a very dangerous assumption, even by implication.
If that argument is allowed to fly, then it’s not a stretch to see how copyright holders might twist lots of versions of complying with the law, into infringing on the law simply by arguing that the form of compliance is somehow “too clever.” That would lead to all sorts of dangerous implications — in which those who are being careful to comply with the law may suddenly be deemed infringing because of their careful compliance. Under such a standard, the more carefully you aim to comply with the law, the greater chance you can be accused of “contorting” yourself in a manner that allows copyright holders to argue that your compliance is somehow “less than sincere” as appears to be the main suggestion here.
It’s troubling that at least a few of the Supreme Court Justices appear to even be considering such a possibility.
Yes, Aereo’s setup is technologically bizarre. But that’s because it’s doing everything to comply with copyright law. If you have a problem with it, it’s not because the company is breaking the law, it’s because the law itself is broken. It would be a cruel twist of fate for Aereo to lose its case because Supreme Court Justices believed that it had broken the law, because the inevitable results of the broken law itself create a situation where complying with the law looks so bizarre that it appears to be infringement!