Author: Brad Greenberg

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Aereo and the Spirit of Technology Neutrality

aereo_logoAereo is a broadcast re-transmitter. It leases to subscribers access to an antenna that captures over-the-air television, copies and digitizes the signal, and then sends it into the subscriber’s home, on a one-to-one basis, in real time or at the subscriber’s later desire. Aereo was poised to revolutionize the cable business—or hasten its collapse.

At least, it was.

Wednesday the Supreme Court unequivocally held that Aereo infringes copyright law, per Section 106(4) (the Transmit Clause). Aereo’s main backer, Barry Diller, quickly waved the white flag. Aereo is done—and it’s unclear what exactly Justice Breyer’s majority opinion portends for other technologies, despite the majority’s “believ[ing]” that the decision will not harm non-cable-like systems.

As James Grimmelmann succinctly noted amid a flurry of thoughtful tweets, “aereo resolves but it does not clarify.” And that might be an understatement. Eric Goldman notes four unanswered questions. (Amazingly, the majority opinion does not even engage Cablevision.) I’d add to that list the still incredibly vague line demarcating a public performance and the broader issue of technology neutrality in copyright law. (More on technology neutrality in a moment.)

The Court’s opinion relied heavily upon legislative history and, in particular, Congress’s abrogation of two earlier Supreme Court decisions on cable re-transmitters, Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television and Teleprompter Corp. v. CBS. The Aereo Court limited discussion entirely to “cable-like” systems, punted on technologically similar non-cable-like systems, and left a big question about the dividing line.

Overall, the Court came off sounding blind to the technological realities of 2014—in stark contrast to its relatively technology-savvy decision in Riley v. California. (Dan’s take on Riley.)

Margot Kaminski has an excellent post for The New Republic addressing the varying treatment of cloud computing in Aereo and Riley, noting how cloud concerns were waved off in Aereo but factored into the Court ruling that the government normally must get a warrant to search an arrestee’s cell phone. The question, Margot asks, is why the different treatment?

The simplest answer would be that the Court was dealing with two different legal regimes: Constitutional privacy law versus statutory copyright. But at the heart of both decisions, the Court was asked to decide whether an old rule applied to a new technology. In one case, the Court was hesitant, tentative, and deferential to the past legal model. And in the other, the Court was unafraid to adjust the legal system for the disruptive technology of the future.

I’m a fan of simplicity, and I think it is particularly helpful in answering this question.

The Fourth Amendment is dynamic. As Orin Kerr has explained: “When new tools and new practices threaten to expand or contract police power in a significant way, courts adjust the level of Fourth Amendment protection to try to restore the prior equilibrium.” The 1976 Copyright Act is not. And by design.

With the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress adopted the principle of “technology neutrality” for copyrightable subject matter and exclusive rights—to “avoid the artificial and largely unjustifiable distinctions” that previously led to unlicensed exploitation of copyrighted works in an uncovered technological medium.  Rather, the 1976 Act was written to apply to known and unknown technologies.

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Tesla encourages free use of its patents—but will that protect users from liability?

Tesla Motors made big news yesterday with an open letter titled, “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.”

The gist of the letter was that Tesla Motors had decided that, in the interest of growing the market for electric vehicles and in the spirit of open source, it would not enforce its patents against “good faith” users. The key language was at the end of the second paragraph:

Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Tesla made clear it was not abandoning its patents, nor did it intend to stop acquiring new patents. Rather, it just wanted clear “intellectual property landmines” that it decided were endangering the “path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles.”

The announcement, made on the company’s website, immediately attracted laudatory media attention. (International Business Times, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Wall Street Journal, etc.) As one commentator for Forbes wrote:

[H]anding out patents to the world is smarter still when you think how resource-sapping the process is. Engineers want to build not fill out paperwork for nit-picking lawyers. Why bog them down with endless red tape form-filling only to end up having to build an expensive legal department to have to defend patents that would likely be got around anyway?

Patents are meant to slow competition but they also slow innovation. In an era when you can invent faster than you can patent, why not keep ahead by inventing?

That’s a pretty concise summary of the general response: Patents are bad, Tesla is good, and all friction in technological innovation would be solved if others followed Tesla’s lead.

Setting aside a pretty loaded normative debate, I had a practical concern. Just how legally enforceable would Tesla’s declaration be? That is, if a technologist practiced one of Tesla’s patents, would they really be free from liability?

The answer isn’t clear. (At least, it wasn’t to a number of us on Twitter yesterday.) Certainly, Tesla could enter into a gratis licensing arrangement with every interested party; a prudent GC should demand that Tesla do so, but it’s unlikely Tesla would want to invest the time and money. In a nod to the vagueness of Telsa’s announcement, CEO Elon Musk also told Wired that “the company is open to making simple agreements with companies that are worried about what using patents in ‘good faith’ really means.”

But assuming Tesla offers nothing more than a public promise not to sue “good faith” users, this announcement may be of little social benefit. Worse, it seems to me that such public promises could provide a new vehicle for trolling.

Sure, Tesla may be estopped from enforcing its patents—though estoppel requires reasonable reliance and this announcement is so vague that it’s difficult to imagine the reliance that would be reasonable—and Tesla isn’t in the patent trolling business anyway. (Sorry, patent-assertion-entity business). But what if Tesla sold its patents or went bankrupt. Could a third party not enforce the patents? If it could, patents promised to be open source would seem a rich market for PAEs.

Tesla is not to first to pledge its patents as open source. In fact, as Clark Asay pointed out, IBM has already been accused of reneging the promise. (See: “IBM now appears to be claiming the right to nullify the 2005 pledge at its sole discretion, rendering it a meaningless confidence trick.”) The questions raised by the Tesla announcement are, thus, not new. And, given enough time, courts will have to answer them.

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James Risen and the reporter’s privilege status quo

Many thanks to Danielle, Frank, and the Concurring Opinions crew for inviting me to guest blog this month. As Danielle mentioned, I’m primarily an IP and media law guy, and I anticipate blogging about things like Aereo, trolls, and the future of newsgathering. (Like Harry, I can be found commenting on lots of other things @bradagreenberg.) I start today with a reporter’s ability to protect the identity of confidential sources…

This week the Supreme Court denied the petition of New York Times investigative reporter James Risen. For years, Risen has fought government efforts to compel disclosure of whether a former CIA official was Risen’s source for a story about a botched CIA plot to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear agency. Risen included this confidential information in his 2006 best-selling book State of War. The former CIA official is being prosecuted for leaking to Risen, and, last July, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Risen must testify at the trial. In a last gasp, Risen petitioned the Supreme Court, asking whether  journalists in a federal criminal trial have a qualified constitutional privilege against revealing confidential sources or should have a common law privilege under Federal Rule of Evidence 501.

The Court having declined to answer this question, Risen now faces testifying or being held in contempt. (Or he must throw himself on the “hinted” mercy of the Justice Department.) This is a great tragedy for a great journalist. But it is not necessarily a great tragedy for great journalism.

Risen’s appeal was a case of Be Careful What You Wish For.

At the core of Risen’s protest is the often-mistaken belief that reporters cannot be compelled to disclose their confidential sources. The Supreme Court first addressed this question forty-two years ago in Branzburg v. Hayes, in which the Court effectively split 4-1-4 on whether journalists had a constitutional privilege against compelled disclosure. The majority opinion held that journalists do not.

But Branzburg did not foreclose such protections. State courts have long shielded media from compelled disclosure, with forty-nine states and the District of Columbia offer varying statutory or common law protections. And Justice Powell’s concurrence suggested that journalists might have a constitutional privilege on different facts, particularly if the subpoena had not been issued by a grand jury. Since then, the circuit courts have recognized a variety of protections: “nine circuits have acknowledged, and only the Sixth Circuit has rejected, a qualified privilege for confidential information in civil cases, and … four circuits extend the privilege in criminal cases and some over non-confidential information in civil cases.” (That’s from this essay about the flawed Free Flow of Information Act of 2013; the federal media shield folly was also mentioned in my previous guest visit.) The result has been that journalists get different levels of protection in different jurisdictions—but in most jurisdictions they get some protection.

Had the Supreme Court agreed to hear Risen’s petition, it is likely that there would be uniformity regarding compelled disclosure of journalists’ confidential info. (It is unclear whether that uniformity would have been limited to confidential sources or would have extended to nonconfidential notes, unused materials, journalist observations, etc.) That uniformity could have increased protections and thereby decreased disincentives to sharing sensitive or confidential information.

Yet, in many circuits the uniformity might cut the other way, restating Branzburg in a manner that results in a weaker media shield. In fact, this seems more likely. In a post-legacy-media era in which people do journalism but aren’t necessarily journalists, legislators and judges have found it so difficult to determine to whom a reporter’s privilege should apply. (The debate over the federal media shield bill is paradigmatic. See n.5.) In this context, it is unlikely the Supreme Court would be willing to establish a broad reporter’s privilege—and in a national security case, for that matter.

Of course, just because the government can compel Risen to testify, does not mean that it should. The spirit of the First Amendment suggests otherwise…