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U.S. Supreme Court

Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting, 415 U.S. 394 (1974)

Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.

No. 72-1628

Argued January 7, 1974

Decided March 4, 1974*

415 U.S. 394


Several creators and producers of copyrighted television programs brought this suit claiming that defendants had infringed their copyrights by intercepting broadcast transmissions of copyrighted material and rechanneling these programs through various community antenna television (CATV) systems to paying subscribers. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the cause of action was barred by this Court's decision in Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artist Television, 392 U. S. 390. On appeal, the Court of Appeals divided CATV systems into two categories for copyright purposes: (1) those where the broadcast signal was already "in the community" served by the system, and could be received there either by a community antenna or by standard rooftop or other antennae belonging to the owners of television sets; and (2) those where the systems imported "distant" signals from broadcasters so far away from the CATV community that the foregoing local facilities could not normally receive adequate signals. Holding that CATV reception and retransmission of non-"distant" signals do not constitute copyright infringement, but that reception and retransmission of "distant" signals amount to a "performance," and thus constitute copyright infringement, the court affirmed as to those systems in the first category, but reversed and remanded as to the remaining systems.


1. The development and implementation, since the Fortnightly decision, of new functions of CATV systems -- program origination, sale of commercials, and interconnection with other CATV systems -- even though they may allow the systems to compete more effectively with the broadcasters for the television market, do not convert the entire CATV operation, regardless of distance from

Page 415 U. S. 395

the broadcasting station, into a "broadcast function," thus subjecting the CATV operators to copyright infringement liability, but are extraneous to a determination of such liability, since in none of these functions is there any nexus with the CATV operators' reception and rechanneling of the broadcasters' copyrighted materials. Pp. 415 U. S. 402-405.

2. The importation of "distant" signals from one community into another does not constitute a "performance" under the Copyright Act. Pp. 415 U. S. 406-415.

(a) By importing signals that could not normally be received with current technology in the community it serves, a CATV system does not, for copyright purposes, alter the function it performs for its subscribers, as the reception and rechanneling of these signals for simultaneous viewing is essentially a viewer function, irrespective of the distance between the broadcasting station and the ultimate viewer. P. 415 U. S. 408.

(b) Even in exercising its limited freedom to choose among various "distant" broadcasting stations, a CATV operator cannot be viewed as "selecting" broadcast signals, since, when it chooses which broadcast signals to rechannel, its creative function is then extinguished, and it thereafter "simply carr[ies], without editing, whatever programs [it] receive[s]," Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, supra, at 392 U. S. 400. Nor does a CATV system importing "distant" signals procure and propagate them to the public, since it is not engaged in converting the sights and sounds of an event or a program into electronic signals available to the public, the signals it receives and rechannels having already been "released to the public" even though not normally available to the specific segment of the public served by the CATV system. Pp. 415 U. S. 409-410.

(c) The fact that there have been shifts in current business and commercial relationships in the communications industry as a result of the CATV systems' importation of "distant" signals, does not entail copyright infringement liability, since by extending the range of viewability of a broadcast program, the CATV systems do not interfere in any traditional sense with the copyright holders' means of extracting recompense for their creativity or labor from advertisers on the basis of all viewers who watch the particular program. Pp. 415 U. S. 410-414.

476 F.2d 338, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to District Court.

Page 415 U. S. 396

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, post, p. 415 U. S. 415. DOUGLAS, J., filed dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 415 U. S. 416.

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