Sunday, April 24, 2011

Closing the cable television statutory licensing loophole

Over the last few months, FilmOn and ivi, two Internet-based services that retransmitted broadcast television stations from multiple cities, have been effectively shut down by preliminary injunctions issued by a U.S. Federal court. In both cases, the issue was that the U.S. Copyright Office has a regulation dating back more than 20 years (Section 111 of the Copyright Act) permitting cable systems to retransmit broadcast signals locally in return for the payment of statutory royalties to the Copyright Office. That regulation was effectively superseded by the Communications Act of 1996, which requires cable and satellite systems to obtain permission from and pay compensation directly to broadcast stations in order to retransmit their signals.

In ivi's case in particular, the company argued that it was a cable system for the purposes of Section 111 of the Copyright Act, but it wasn't a cable system under the definition of the Federal Communication Commission, and therefore wasn't subject to the Communications Act of 1996. In both ivi's and FilmOn's cases, the Federal court ruled that they weren't cable systems under any established definition, and therefore weren't entitled to take advantage of Section 111. They could negotiate directly with television stations for retransmission rights, as IPTV operators such as Verizon and AT&T do, but they had no right to retransmit their signals under a statutory license.

Both cases are still in litigation and have not been finally decided by the courts, but an action announced last week by the U.S. Copyright Office may may the entire argument moot. The right of satellite services such as Dish Network and DirecTV to retransmit signals from broadcast stations outside a subscriber's local area was renewed last year, in the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA). A section was included in STELA that requires the statutory licensing requirements in Section 111, as well as additional requirements in Sections 119 and 122 (covering satellite services), to be phased out, and it gives the Copyright Office responsibility for coming up with a phase-out plan. Here's what the section says:
Not later than 18 months after the enactment of this Act, and after consultation with the Federal Communication Commission, the Register of Copyrights shall submit to the appropriate Congressional committees a report containing the following:

1. proposed mechanisms, methods, and recommendations on how to implement a phase-out of the statutory licensing requirements set forth in sections 111, 119, and 122 of title 17, United States Code, by making such sections inapplicable to the secondary transmission of a performance or display of a work embodied in a primary transmission of a broadcast station that is authorized to license the same secondary transmission directly with respect to all of the performances and displays embodied in such primary transmission

2. any recommendations for alternative means to implement a timely and effective phase-out of the statutory licensing requirements set forth in sections 111, 119, and 122 of title 17, United States Code

3. any recommendations for legislative or administrative actions as may be appropriate to achieve such a phase-out
Last week, the Copyright Office announced a timetable for requesting comments and replies to comments to help it formulate a phase-out plan. By the time the FilmOn and ivi cases wind their ways through the Federal court system, it's likely that the phase-out plan will be adopted, and even possible that the phase-out date will be reached. Thus, even if they win in court, there won't be any statutory license, and they'll still have to negotiate station by station for retransmission rights and compensation.

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