Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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The Copyright Act of 1976 gives a copyright owner the “exclusive righ[t]” to “perform the copyrighted work publicly,” 17 U.S.C. 106(4), including the right to “transmit or otherwise communicate ... the [copyrighted] work ... to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance ... receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times,” section 101. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs over the Internet. Aereo’s server tunes an antenna, which is dedicated to the use of one subscriber, to the broadcast carrying the selected show. A transcoder translates the signals received by an antenna into data that can be transmitted over the Internet. A server saves the data in a subscriber-specific folder and streams the show to the subscriber, a few seconds behind the over-the-air broadcast. The owners of program copyrights unsuccessfully sought a preliminary injunction, arguing that Aereo was infringing their right to “perform” their copyrighted works “publicly.” The Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that Aereo performs the works within the meaning of section 101 and does not merely supply equipment that allows others to do so. The Court noted that the Act was amended in 1976 to make the law applicable to community antenna television (CATV) providers by clarifying that an entity that acts like a CATV system “performs,” even when it only enhances viewers’ ability to receive broadcast television signals. Aereo’s activities are similar; it sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, virtually as they are being broadcast. That Aereo’s system remains inert until a subscriber indicates that she wants to watch a program is not critical. Aereo transmits a performance whenever its subscribers watch a program. The Court stated that when an entity communicates the same contemporaneously perceptible images and sounds to multiple people, it “transmit[s] ... a performance” to them, regardless of the number of discrete communications it makes and whether it makes an individual personal copy for each viewer. Aero subscribers are “the public” under the Act: a large number of people, unrelated and unknown to each other. View "Am. Broad. Cos. v. Aereo, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Copyright Act protects works published before 1978 for 28 years, renewable for up to 67 years, 17 U.S.C. 304(a). An author’s heirs inherit renewal rights. If an author who has assigned rights dies before the renewal period the assignee may continue to use the work only if the author’s successor transfers renewal rights to the assignee. The Act provides for injunctive relief and damages. Civil actions must be commenced within three years after the claim accrued-ordinarily when an infringing act occurred. Under the separate-accrual rule, each successive violation starts a new limitations period, but is actionable only within three years of its occurrence. The movie, Raging Bull, is based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who, with Petrella, told his story in a screenplay copyrighted in 1963. In 1976 they assigned their rights and renewal rights to MGM. In 1980 MGM released, and registered a copyright in, Raging Bull. Petrella died during the initial copyright term, so renewal rights reverted to his daughter, who renewed the 1963 copyright in 1991. Seven years later, she advised MGM that it was violating her copyright. Nine years later she filed suit, seeking damages and injunctive relief for violations occurring after January 5, 2006. The district court dismissed, citing laches. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Laches cannot bar a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. By permitting retrospective relief only three years back, the limitations period takes account of delay. Noting the “essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding,” nature of laches, the Court stated that it has never applied laches to entirely bar claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. It is not incumbent on copyright owners to challenge every actionable infringement; there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether a violation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect, or even complements the work. The limitations period, with the separate-accrual rule, allows an owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the effort. Because a plaintiff bears the burden of proof, evidence unavailability is as likely to affect plaintiffs as defendants. The Court noted that in some circumstances, the equitable defense of estoppel might limit remedies. Allowing this suit to proceed will put at risk only a fraction of what MGM has earned from Raging Bull and will work no unjust hardship on innocent third parties. Should Petrella prevail on the merits, the court may fashion a remedy taking account of the delay and MGM’s alleged reliance on that delay. View "Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc." on Justia Law

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In the 1970s the FCC began enforcing 18 U.S.C. 1464, which bans broadcast of "any obscene, indecent, or profane language." This case concerns two isolated utterances of obscene words during live broadcasts aired by Fox and an ABC television show during which the nude buttocks of an adult female character were shown for approximately seven seconds and the side of her breast for a moment. Under 2001 Guidelines, a key consideration was whether the material dwelled on or repeated at length the offending description or depiction. After these incidents, the FCC issued its Golden Globes Order, declaring that fleeting expletives could be actionable. It concluded that the broadcasts violated this standard. On remand, the Second Circuit found the policy unconstitutionally vague and invalid. The Supreme Court held that, because the FCC failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts, its standards were vague as applied to the broadcasts. Although the FCC declined to impose a forfeiture on Fox and said that it would not consider the broadcasts in renewing licenses or in other contexts, it has statutory power to take prior offenses into account when setting a penalty, 47 U.S.C. 503(b)(2)(E), and due process protection against vague regulations "does not leave [regulated parties] ... at the mercy of noblesse oblige." The challenged orders could also have an adverse impact on Fox’s reputation with audiences and advertisers. The Court declined to address the constitutionality of the current indecency policy. View "Fed. Commc'n Comm'n v. Fox Television Stations, Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioners are orchestra conductors, musicians, publishers, and others who formerly enjoyed free access to literary and artistic works section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), 17 U.S.C. 104A, 109(a), removed from the public domain. Petitioners maintained that Congress, in passing section 514, exceeded its authority under the Constitution's Copyright and Patent Clause and violated the First Amendment rights of anyone who previously had access to such works. The Tenth Circuit ruled that section 514 was narrowly tailored to fit the important government aim of protecting U.S. copyright holders' interests abroad. In accord with the judgment of the Tenth Circuit, the Court concluded that section 514 did not transgress constitutional limitations on Congress' authority. The Court held that neither the text of the Copyright and Patent Clause, historical practice, or the Court's precedent excluded application of copyright protection to works in the public domain. The Court also held that nothing in the historical record, subsequent congressional practice, or the Court's jurisprudence warranted exceptional First Amendment solicitude for copyrighted works that were once in the public domain. View "Golan v. Holder" on Justia Law

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Respondents, representing the video game and software industries, filed a preenforcement challenge to California Assembly Bill 1179 (Act), Cal. Civ. Code Ann. 1746-1746.5, which restricted the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. At issue was whether the Act comported with the First Amendment. The Court held that, because the Act imposed a restriction on the content of protected speech, it was invalid unless California could demonstrate that it passed strict scrutiny. The Court held that California had a legitimate interest in addressing a serious social problem and helping concerned parents control their children. The Court held, however, that as a means of protecting children from portrayals of violence, the legislation was seriously underinclusive, not only because it excluded portrayals other than video games, but also because it permitted a parental or avuncular veto. The Court also held that, as a means of assisting concerned parents, it was seriously overinclusive because it abridged the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents think violent video games were a harmless pastime. The Court further held that the overbreadth in achieving one goal was not cured by the overbreadth in achieving the other and therefore, the legislation could not survive strict scrutiny. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit enjoining the Act's enforcement. View "Brown, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. et al." on Justia Law