On August 4, 2008, the Second Circuit court of appeals overturned a lower courts opinion that Cablevision’s Remote Storage” Digital Video Recorder (“RS-DVR”) system violated the Copyright Act by infringing plaintiffs’ exclusive rights of reproduction and public perfCartoon Network ormance.  The full 44-page opinion is available at Cartoon Network, LLP, et al. v. Cablevision.  In my humble yet fully animated opinion, the Second Circuit’s opinion was not at all well reasoned nor, for that matter, even common sense — I believe it misinterprets at three very important areas of the Copyright Act and interpretation thereof:

When is a work “Fixed” According to Section 101

Through a system of buffers, Cablevision’s RS-DVR will allow customers who do not own stand alone DVR’s to record programming, which resides on Cablevision’s servers, and “time-shift” it to view it at a later date.  Certainly a great concept, but one which, in my opinion, should require authorization from the owners of the copyrights. 

In arriving at its conclusion, the court determined that the buffer used to process the steam of data only “copies” the data for a duration of 1.2 seconds, before transferring it to another buffer used to reconstruct a copy of the program for any customer who has asked to view it at a later time.  The court concluded that this “embodiment,” i.e. the copy, was transitory in duration and therefore not “fixed” pursuant to Section 101 of the Copyright Act.  Therefore, the copyright owners’ right of reproduction was not violated.  This is clearly erroneous reasoning:

The definition of “fixed” in Section 101 of the Copyright Act states, in its entirety:

A work is “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.

In arriving at its determination, the Second Circuit focused on its condensed version of the definition, i.e. a work is “fixed” when its embodiment “. . . sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be . . . reproduced . . . for a period of more than transitory duration.”  The court concluded, based on this shortened version of the definition, that the “language plainly imposes two distinct but related requirements, i.e. an “embodiment requirement” and a “duration requirement.”

The Second Circuit’s error is grammatical in nature:  it misinterprets the language of the definition of “fixed” by assuming that the phrase “for a period of more than transitory duration” modifies the words “permanent or stable” when in fact it actually modifies the antecedent phrase “permit it to be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated.”  This is certainly the case with regard to the RS-DVR – it fixes the copies for in sufficiently permanent state in one buffer (i.e. the 1.2 seconds) to permit them to be reproduced in another buffer for a period of more than transitory duration.  Thus, the court got it wrong.

Without getting into too much detail, the court also incorrectly analyzes a 9th Circuit cases, MAI Systems and its progeny which correctly apply the definition of fixed to a copy of a work created in RAM memory for a period of minutes.  The effect of this misinterpretation is to put legal practitioners in the precarious position of trying to determine at what point between 1.2 seconds and 2 minutes does a reproduction arrive at a “more than transitory” state.

Ironically, the Second Circuit ignores the U.S. Copyright Office’s analysis of this precise issue in its 2001 report on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which elaborated that a work was fixed “unless a reproduction manifests itself so fleetingly that it cannot be copied, perceived or communicated.”  This clarification is in line with my earlier interpretation that the phrase “more than transitory in duration” modifies the communication or perception, not the embodiment itself.  The Second Circuit stated that, in its mind, the U.S. Copyright Office’s interpretation “reads the ‘transitory duration’ language out of the statute.”  To the contrary, however, it is the correct interpretation in that it incorporates the transitory duration requirement into the appropriate section of the definition.

Finally, the Second Circuit completely ignores the last sentence of the definition, to wit:  A work . . . is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.”  In this instance, the court readily admitted that an unauthorized copy of the work was stored, i.e. “fixed” on Cablevision’s servers simultaneously with its transmission.

When is an infringer not an infringer?

In extending recent trends by some circuits to weaken the strict liability component of the Copyright Act, the Second Court refused to find that Cablevision was a direct infringer.  Instead, it rules that the customer is the direct infringer in this instance of digital recording, showing his or her intent to make a copy when he or she presses the record button on the remote.  The court reasons as follows:

In this case . . . the core of the dispute is over the authorship of the infringing conduct.  After an RS-DVR subscriber selects a program to record, and that program airs, a copy of the program–a copyrighted work–resides on
the hard disks of Cablevision’s Arroyo Server, its creation unauthorized by the copyright holder. The question is who made  this copy. If it is Cablevision, plaintiffs’ theory of direct infringement succeeds; if it is the customer, plaintiffs’ theory fails because Cablevision would then face, at most, secondary liability, a theory of liability expressly disavowed by plaintiffs.

Emphasis mine.  The first thing to note about the court’s conclusion is that it realizes, right off the bat, that the copy created on the servers of Cablevision is an infringement.  In its mind, however, the only question is who made the copy.  Now, that, of course, flies directly in the face of a host of copyright concepts which I will not address here, but suffice it to say that this is problematic.

But, for the moment, let’s just examine how the court ultimately determines who had the “volition” to infringe in this specific case:

There are only two instances of volitional conduct in this case: Cablevision’s conduct in designing, housing, and maintaining a system that exists only to produce a copy, and a customer’s conduct in ordering that system to produce a copy of a specific program. In the case of a VCR, it seems  clear–and we know of no case holding otherwise–that the operator of the VCR, the person who actually presses the button to make the recording, supplies the necessary element of volition, not the person who manufactures, maintains, or, if distinct from the operator, owns the machine. We do not believe that an RS-DVR customer is sufficiently distinguishable from a VCR user to impose liability as a direct infringer on a different party for copies that are made automatically upon that customer’s command.

The court then continues its analysis by example, offering the examples of a retailer who owns a photocopier and rents it out to the public as reinforcement of its conclusion, finding that because the retailer would not be liable for infringement, neither should Cablevision.   Despite the fact that there is case law holding that such a retailer WOULD, in fact, be liable for infringement, the Second Circuit errs in failing to see the difference between a VCR in the analog world, a single, stand-alone device used express by the customer, and a process devised by a company which makes infringement as simple as pressing my record button on my remote.  The court does not find this a “sufficient” distinction.  The court’s error in logic is apparent in this prose when it examines a 6th Circuit case on the issue:

In determining who actually “makes” a copy, a significant difference
exists between making a request to a human employee, who then volitionally operates the copying system to make the copy, and issuing a command directly to a system, which automatically obeys commands and engages in no volitional conduct.

Is this 2001 Space Odyssey?  Did H.A.L. take over when I wasn’t looking?  Who programmed the system?  

If this were not enough, the Second Circuit then performs a great deal of legal gymnastics to support its finding:  First, it examines the video on demand process to illustrate that Cablevision does not have control over the transmissions being recorded by theCablevision subscribers in the RS-VCR system.  Are they for real?  Ever heard of apples and oranges.  The VOD system is a fully licensed process which is, dare we say it, nothing like the RS-VCR system.  Secondly, the Second Circuit uses the distinction between “active” and “passive” infringement under the Patent Act to jump to the almost humorous, if it weren’t so wrong, conclusion that:

If Congress had meant to assign direct liability to both the person who actually commits a copyright-infringing act and any person who actively induces that infringement, the Patent Act tells us that it knew how to draft a statute that would have this effect.

Every intellectual property attorney worth his or her salt knows that the Copyright Act and the Patent Act are very limited in their usefulness for purposes of using one to interpret the other.  That’s why it’s said that the Copyright Act is a strict liability statute, whereas, the Patent Act is not so much.

When is work “publicly performed”?

The final error committed by the court is in its analysis of whether the buffered copy delivered to individual customers was “publicly performed.” In this regard, the Second Circuit concluded:

under the transmit clause, we must examine the potential audience of a given transmission by an alleged infringer to determine whether that transmission is “to the public.” And because the RS-DVR system, as designed, only makes transmissions to one subscriber using a copy made by that subscriber, we believe that the universe of people capable of receiving an RS-DVR transmission is the single subscriber whose self-made copy is used to create that transmission.

Again, the Second Circuit has to do a hatchet job on the definition of “public performance” in order to arrive at this convoluted conclusion.  The definition of “public performance” in the Copyright Act is actually found in the “publication” definition of Section 101.  It states, in its entirety:

To perform or display a work “publicly” means — 

(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or

(2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.

Emphasis mine.  Whereas the Second Circuit zeroed in on the phrase “to the public” in making its determination, the definition clearly intends to define public performance as any process that allows the public, in general, the ability to receive the transmission, whether or not it is in the same place or the same time.  Its not very difficult to see the fallacy of the Second Circuit’s reasoning.   The Cablevision RS-DVR clearly does precisely what the definition anticipates, it creates multiple copies stored in the buffers for individual subscribers in multiple places, who then view the (buffered) transmissions at different times. 

While this seems simple, the Second Circuit jumps through numerous irrational hoops to arrive at the idea that:

the transmit clause directs us to identify the potential audience of a given transmission, i.e., the persons “capable of receiving” it, to determine whether that transmission is made “to the public.”

Nothing in the statute dictates this conclusion, to the contrary, the legislators probably thought that the word “public” was generic enough to not need interpretation. 

The effect of this ruling, at least for now, is that anyone can make digital copies of any copyrighted work on their servers for purposes of transmitting to an individual customer, so long as that individual customer makes a request for it, and there is no implication of the performance rights.

This is a fine example of a court “reasoning” the meaning completely out of a statute. 


If it is not obvious by now, I think this is one of the most poorly reasoned and drafted opinions by a Circuit Court that I have read in a long time.  If there is a bright side, it is that the effect of this decision is primarily that it overturns the grant of a summary judgement by the lower court.  From a broader perspective, however, and the more unfortunate result is that, because of the concept of stare decisis, this reasoning can now be cited in other cases in other jurisdictions across the country as good law.  So, unfortunately, we entertainment attorneys will be dealing with the negative impact of this decision for some time to come, until perhaps some higher court, in this case the Supremes, decides to rectify it.