The media yesterday was splashed with stories about how Optus is threatening the flow of revenues to sports such as the NRL and the AFL through its TV Now service (for example, here and here and here). Hundreds of millions of dollars are apparently at stake.

Basically, it looks like you download an “app” to your phone or computer and you can then record (or perhaps more strictly, instruct Optus to record) a television program being broadcast on free to air television on Optus’ servers and then have the recording streamed to your mobile or computer at a time and place of your choosing – Optus’ promotional video suggests as your sitting on the bus. The media reports suggest you might be able to start watching as soon as 2 minutes after the game program starts broadcasting. There are a few constraints: You have to watch within 30 days of the recording. You can only nominate programs broadcast in the area where your account address is located. It looks like, if you’re an Optus (mobile) subscriber you get 45 minutes storage “free”, but you can “buy” more if you want.

Optus’ version of how it works here and here.

It is billed as just like home taping or recording only for the 21st century.

Optus is reported to be seeking an injunction against the AFL and the NRL to stop them suing it for copyright infringement. In fact, Optus has brought proceedings against both the NRL and the AFL and the first directions hearing was heard by Rares J today: NSD1430/2011. Rares J made timetabling orders for defences (and cross-claims) and evidence with the trial fixed for 19 December 2011.

The injunction part is easy: someone who is on the receiving end of threats of copyright infringement can bring an action for groundless threats of infringement and, if successful, the remedies include an injunction against continuation of the threats and possibly damages for loss suffered.

Presumably, the AFL and/or the NRL sent Optus letters of demand telling it to stop or else. If so, there will be a threat and then it will be over to the AFL and/or the NRL to establish that what Optus is doing infringes their copyright.

In the case of a (largely unscripted) sporting spectacle like a footy final, the copyright is going to subsist only in the broadcast (hmmm, what about the jumpers and logos and ….)

I am guessing (but I don’t know) that the AFL’s and the NRL’s contracts with the broadcasters involve the broadcasters assigning their copyright in the broadcast to, respectively, the AFL and the NRL.

As I haven’t seen Optus’ claim or, more likely, defence to cross-claim, I am also guessing Optus will be relying on s 111 of the Copyright Act:

(1) This section applies if a person makes a cinematograph film or sound recording of a broadcast solely for private and domestic use by watching or listening to the material broadcast at a time more convenient than the time when the broadcast is made. Note: Subsection 10(1) defines broadcast as a communication to the public delivered by a broadcasting service within the meaning of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 . Making the film or recording does not infringe copyright

(2) The making of the film or recording does not infringe copyright in the broadcast or in any work or other subject-matter included in the broadcast.

Note: Even though the making of the film or recording does not infringe that copyright, that copyright may be infringed if a copy of the film or recording is made.

Dealing with embodiment of film or recording

(3) Subsection (2) is taken never to have applied if an article or thing embodying the film or recording is:

(a) sold; or

(b) let for hire; or

(c) by way of trade offered or exposed for sale or hire; or

(d) distributed for the purpose of trade or otherwise; or

(e) used for causing the film or recording to be seen or heard in public; or

(f) used for broadcasting the film or recording.

Note: If the article or thing embodying the film or recording is dealt with as described in subsection (3), then copyright may be infringed not only by the making of the article or thing but also by the dealing with the article or thing.

(4) To avoid doubt, paragraph (3)(d) does not apply to a loan of the article or thing by the lender to a member of the lender’s family or household for the member’s private and domestic use.

The first thing here will be who makes the recording. Will the Optus subscriber’s use of the technology to get a recording made on Optus’ servers (in the cloud) mean that the subscriber is the person who makes the recording or will it be Optus?

If Optus is the person who makes the recording (a) can the subscriber delegate the making to them as an agent or (b) does the recording need to be made for Optus’ private and domestic use or will the private and domestic use of its subscriber suffice?

As to who makes the recording, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the rather different legislative setting of the US Copyright Act considered that the party in the position of Optus did not make the recording: Cartoon Network v Cablevision Inc. 536 F. 3d 121.

On the other hand, while recognising the possibility of a person making a fair dealing copy through an agent, in Australia Beaumont J found that a news monitoring service infringed copyright by making clippings of newspaper articles for its clients. While the clients may have had a relevant fair dealing purpose, the news monitoring service’s purpose was not a fair dealing purpose but a commercial purpose of making copies for its clients: De Garis v Nevill Jeffris Pidler Pty Limited [1990] FCA 218.

(You will have noticed that s 111(2) applies to not just to the copyright in the broadcast, but also any other copyright included in the broadcast. So that takes care of the logo, jumpers and all the other copyrights in scripted shows like, er, Home and Away etc.)

Section 111(2) only immunises the making of the recording. What happens when Optus streams the recording back to the subscriber? If it is set up so that the recording is streamed only to the individual subscriber, it will be difficult to call it a broadcast. But is it otherwise a communication to the public? This might turn on whether the communication is made by the subscriber (or his or her agent) to themselves or Optus. In the Music on Hold case (largely superseded now as a result of significant changes in the legislation), Dawson and Gaudron JJ emphasised that the public were people whom the copyright owner might fairly regard as its public and downplayed the number of persons involved. Will the commercial nature of Optus relationship with its subscribers colour the characterisation of this situation?

I guess we will have to wait and see.

Singtel Optus v National Rugby League and the Australian Football League NSD1430/2011.