Court nixes appeals on cabler access, Taiwan soaps

A Georgia cable TV company claiming a right of access to run its lines, free of charge, into two Cobb County apartment complexes lost a Supreme Court appeal yesterday.

The justices, without comment, let stand a ruling that said the apartments’ owner is not required by federal law to permit such access even if other utilities have been given rights of way.

In another case, the court rejected a New York firm’s appeal of its conviction of violating another firm’s copyright on TV soap operas originally aired in Taiwan.

At issue in the cable case was the scope of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which gives cable operators the right to use easements “dedicated for compatible uses.”

Smyrna Cable TV in 1985 sued the real estate firm that owned and operated Lakes Apartments and the Woodsong Apartments.

Smyrna Cable had for the previous five years had a contract with the complexes’ owner, McNeil Real Estate, to provide cable service.

But when those contracts expired, McNeil signed contracts with ODC Communications Corp., but Smyrna Cable contended those contracts could not be exclusive and preclude its ability to sign up customers living in the apartment complexes.

Unlike Smyrna Cable, ODC does not require a franchise from Cobb County because all its equipment — a satellite dish, television antenna and cable lines — is located on McNeil’s property.

U.S. District Judge Richard Freeman in Atlanta ruled in 1989 that McNeil had to let Smyrna Cable, without imposing any fee, run its lines to the various buildings of the apartment complexes.

The judge, noting that easements already existed for telephone and electric lines, ruled that Smyrna Cable had to be allowed to co-use those easements.

Freeman relied on the 1984 federal law. It states: “Any franchise shall be construed to authorize the construction of a cable system over public rights-of-way and through easements … within the area to be served by the cable system and which have been dedicated for compatible uses.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Freeman’s ruling last February, saying it raised “serious concerns” about the federal law’s constitutionality.

Fifth Amendment cited

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says government may not take private property for a public purpose without paying “just compensation.”

Calling the 1984 law’s wording “admittedly ambiguous,” the appeals court said a cable TV company is allowed free “piggyback” access on other easements onto private property only when the property owner “has dedicated those easements for general use of any utilities.”

Since McNeil had dedicated the easements across its property for just certain specific utilities, Smyrna Cable was not entitled to free access, the appeals court said.

In the copyright case, lower courts had rejected arguments that the United States does not have a valid copyright agreement with Taiwan.

New York Chinese TV Programs Inc. in 1988 sued U.E. Enterprises, which had sold and rented videotapes of Taiwanese soap operas.

New York Chinese said it was the exclusive copyright licensee of the Taiwanese television stations that originally aired the programs.

A federal judge ruled that U.E. Enterprises had violated New York Chinese’s copyright, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

In its appeal, U.E. Enterprises said the appeals court erred in ruling that Taiwan was a separate nation with a valid copyright agreement with the United States.

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