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The Supreme Court Is Taking on Copyright and Patents with Three Important Tech Cases

Three legal battles between tech companies will be reviewed, and could have important consequences for the industry.
January 17, 2014, 1:20pm
The US Supreme Court will review some cases that could have a big impact on the tech industry. Image via Wikimedia Commons/Morriswa

Heading into 2014, the US Supreme Court has elected to hear a tripleheader of cases addressing a couple of core concerns that may affect the tech industry for years: copyright and patents. The trio of tech cases include suits that could make patent trolling more difficult, decide whether or not consumers can be held liable for patent infringement, and help determine the copyright relationship between TV and the internet.

The TV-related copyright appeal pits a New York based startup, Aereo, against a motley crew of TV networks and Hollywood studios. If you aren’t familiar with Aereo, the company leases TV antennas via a subscription, and pipes the signal via the internet to its customers. One customer, one antenna. Aereo also lets people use a cloud-based DVR-like service.

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The crux of the dispute is this: the networks say that Aereo is distributing their content without permission (and without paying for it), and argue that the antenna-to-internet technology is the 21st century equivalent of a public performance—a long argued-over legal concept. Aereo thinks that’s rubbish. Watching TV on its service is exactly the same as watching TV the old fashioned way, the company argues; the only difference is that it’s online. The company says that it’s playing by the rules because, by leasing one antenna per customer, it’s in compliance with the precedent-setting ruling that allowed Cablevision to operate its cloud-based DVR service.

Another interesting case on the Court’s schedule is a dispute over content delivery network (CDN) technology, which, among other things, allows fast and reliable load balancing. This lawsuit is over patent infringement, and pits the largest CDN provider in the world, Akamai Technologies, against one of its much smaller competitors, Limelight Networks. The issue hinges on a legal concept called “joint infringement,” where all of the steps of a single patent are replicated. It's like normal infringement, except that each step is replicated by a different person or company. In this case, some parts of Akamai’s patent were allegedly infringed on by Limelight, and some parts by Limelight’s customers (websites that publish content).

It's an important case for big tech companies. That’s because, if the Court rules in Akamai’s favor, the concept of joint liability could theoretically expose consumers to patent infringement liability—say, by buying a smartphone, and unwittingly violating an obscure patent simply by using it—as well as exposing tech companies to greater patent liability. For example, it might be possible for a smartphone manufacturer to be sued over a patent-infringing use that some of their millions of customers have devised. That greater liability is probably why the CTIA, an industry lobbying group for the wireless carriers, as well as Cisco, Google, Oracle, and other tech companies, filed briefs supporting Limelight.

Rounding out the Court’s tech-related patent cases is a battle being waged by two medical device manufacturers: Nautilus and Biosig Instruments. The dispute is over a Nautilus heart rate monitor design, which Biosig claims is conceptually included in one of its ten-year-old patent applications. The language in Biosig’s patent is pretty vague, describing a design that involves a “spaced relationship” between the heart monitor’s electrodes. The problem is, that could mean just about anything—a mile, a yard, a foot—according to a joint brief filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public knowledge.

The case is interesting for the Court because it tackles a long-time precedent that tolerates such vague patent claims, according to the EFF. The vague patents are a problem because the practice, encouraged by the Federal Circuit Court, results in patents so broad that with a little bit of lawyering they can be stretched to cover technology discovered after the original claim was made, they explained in their brief. The patents are especially prevalent in the software industry, and are one of patent trolls’ favored legal implements. It’s also probably why—as in the Akamai vs. Limelight case—Google and others have encouraged the Supreme Court to review the case.

Patent and copyright law isn’t the sexiest part of tech, that’s for sure. But the three issues on the Court’s radar for the final stretch in its term are critical for the industry. As fucked up as copyright law has become since the internet’s birth, this case between the networks and Aereo is the Court’s chance to allow an innovative, young company to get TV onto the net, which is something the networks should probably have done themselves ages ago.

The patent cases are equally important: if the Court finds in favor of Akamai, allowing joint infringement, it could expose tech giants to numerous patent lawsuits due to all sorts of unintended uses of their products. And the final patent case could make life a little harder for everyone’s favorite cocktail party guest—patent trolls.