2014 Year in Review - Copyright in the Courts, Legislation on the Horizon


This post is one in a series of reports on significant issues for startups in 2014. In the past year, the startup community’s voice helped drive notable debates in tech and entrepreneurship policy, but many of the tech world’s policy goals in 2014, from net neutrality to patent reform, remain unfulfilled. Stay tuned for more year-end updates and continue to watch this space in 2015 as we follow the policy issues most affecting the startup community.

As is only fitting in a policy area where the law consistently fails to keep pace with technological developments, we are not much closer at the end of 2014 to an overhaul of the nation’s copyright laws than we were in the spring of 2013 when Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante asked Congress to begin work on the “Next Great Copyright Act.” Despite the lack of large-scale reform efforts, 2014 was a fascinating year in copyright issues, with hints at prolonged policy debates to come.

Perhaps chastened by the SOPA/PIPA debacle, Washington took a cautious, deliberate approach to copyright reform efforts this year, getting a lay of the land from a multitude of stakeholders in a series of hearings, roundtable discussions, and panels hosted by the Judiciary Committee, the Copyright Office, and the USPTO. These fact-finding missions covered everything from the DMCA notice and takedown process to the application of the first sale doctrine in digital media. In July, we participated in one of the USPTO multi-stakeholder panels to discuss how massive statutory penalties for secondary copyright infringement can chill innovation and encourage copyright trolls. That policymakers took such a keen interest in soliciting opinions from interested parties about how copyright law needs to change in the coming years suggests that the contours of new copyright legislation will start to take shape in 2015.

While legislators pondered potential reforms, the judiciary was hard at work dealing with cutting edge copyright cases (and, unfortunately, coming to some troubling conclusions). In April, we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in its review of Aereo’s TV streaming business. The Court ultimately ruled that by distributing free over-the-air broadcasts to Internet subscribers via dedicated miniature antennas, Aereo was infringing broadcaster copyrights. In doing so, the Court ignored the plain text of the statutes at issue, employing what amounted to a smell test: Aereo looked like a cable TV service, so it should be governed as one, subject to a compulsory license regime. The ruling injected even more uncertainty into a notoriously vague body of law, opening up avenues for idiosyncratic judicial opinions to shut down new technologies that are in textual compliance with existing statutes.

Even more concerning for startups everywhere, the Federal Circuit in May issued its opinion in the Oracle v. Google case, holding that software APIs—bits of code that allow different applications to communicate and work together—are copyrightable. The implications of this decision are far-ranging, threatening to undermine the competition and open exchange of ideas that helped drive the rapid growth of software and applications. Requiring entrepreneurs to enter into licenses in order to use common APIs will make it significantly more difficult to create widely compatible applications, leading to an increased balkanization of software services and applications. As interoperability decreases, so too does application innovation and consumer choice. Google has appealed to the Supreme Court, and we joined an amicus brief urging the Court to take the case, arguing that allowing companies to claim copyrights on APIs would greatly harm software innovation.

Recent weeks have seen even more salacious copyright news, with leaked documents from the MPAA suggesting that the so-called “copyright wars” of a few years back may return in a big way. The MPAA has apparently been working on reinterpreting the DMCA to accomplish some of the same nefarious goals that SOPA was meant to facilitate (e.g., DNS site blocking), and it has roped several state Attorneys General into taking up its cause of holding content-neutral websites accountable for copyright infringement rather than the folks actually engaging in the “piracy” the content industry so detests. As the SOPA/PIPA fight showed and these leaked documents confirm, the content industry has little regard for the collateral damage its anti-piracy efforts would do to non-infringing activities.

In light of these reports, it seems more and more likely that Congress will begin putting pen to paper on a Copyright Act update in 2015, and it’s crucial that the technology and startup communities help set the agenda, rather than merely reacting to the demands of the content industries. Key on that agenda is restoring sanity to the copyright damages regime, strengthening and clarifying safe harbors for companies that aren’t engaging in direct infringement, and ensuring that the costs of complying with secondary liability rules aren’t prohibitively expensive for startups. The SOPA/PIPA debate showed that the Internet community is paying attention to changes in copyright policy; the next great copyright debate must show that the tech world is ready and willing to advance a proactive agenda that fosters the next wave of innovative technologies.