Last week, I’ve been taking a close look at the proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act (COICA), which was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 18th. On Monday, I examined what the bill does, and on Wednesday I addressed due process criticisms.

Today I want to take a look at the most serious criticism: that COICA amounts to “censorship.” It’s a little tough, actually, to find discussion of COICA online that doesn’t mention censorship. Much of the criticism centers around the characterization of the COICA proceedings as a “prior restraint.” Others have expressed concerns that the bill would be “overbroad.”

Prior Restraint

The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The Supreme Court has held that:

[P]rior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights. A criminal penalty or a judgment in a defamation case is subject to the whole panoply of protections afforded by deferring the impact of the judgment until all avenues of appellate review have been exhausted. Only after judgment has become final, correct or otherwise, does the law’s sanction become fully operative. A prior restraint, by contrast and by definition, has an immediate and irreversible sanction. If it can be said that a threat of criminal or civil sanctions after publication “chills” speech, prior restraint “freezes” it at least for the time. 1Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 US 539, 559 (1976).

The general rule regarding prior restraints, as restated by Mark Lemley and Eugene Volokh, is that “Speech may not be restrained until a final judicial determination that it’s unprotected by the First Amendment.” 2Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke Law Journal 147 (1998). In practice, this means that courts are reluctant to grant preliminary injunctions in cases involving speech (permanent injunctions, however, are fine, since they come after a final judicial determination that the speech at issue is unprotected). But when it comes to copyright infringement cases, as Lemley and Volokh point out,

[P]reliminary injunctions are granted pretty much as a matter of course, even when the defendant has engaged in creative adaptation, not just literal copying. How can this be? True, the Supreme Court has held that copyright law is a constitutionally permissible speech restriction; though copyright law restricts what we can write or record or perform, the First Amendment doesn’t protect copyright-infringing speech against such a restraint.

COICA provides that a domain name may only be blocked after an in rem proceeding is commenced and a court issues an injunction — preliminary or otherwise. As such, under current law, COICA’s provisions are no more a prior restraint than the preliminary injunctions routinely ordered in infringement cases. Now, one may argue that preliminary injunctions shouldn’t be available in copyright infringement cases as a whole, that despite case law to the contrary, they amount to constitutionally prohibited prior restraints. This is the argument made by Lemley and Volokh. However, even accepting such an argument, there is one exception: “piracy and other ‘easy’ cases.” 3This is one example of why I think it’s important to draw distinctions between “creative” and “consumptive” uses of copyrighted works. Lemley and Volokh explain that “most obvious cases of copyright infringement won’t implicate the prior restraint rule at all”:

The danger of preliminary injunctions is that they may temporarily suppress speech that ultimately proves to be protected. If a judge can, at the time of the preliminary injunction hearing, make a reliable finding that the speech is constitutionally unprotected, rather than just that it might be unprotected, then there should be no problem with issuing the preliminary injunction.

This could happen whenever the defendant has made identical or nearly identical copies of the plaintiff’s works, and there is no claim of fair use, but only some other copyright defense (such as that defendant has a supposedly valid license, or that plaintiff’s copyright wasn’t properly renewed, or something along those lines). Most cases alleging outright piracy, as well as most claims that the defendant has exceeded the boundaries of its license, would fall within this category.

In this situation, the defendant’s conduct is not constitutionally protected speech, even if the defendant ultimately proves that it’s not a copyright infringement. Harper & Row, as we read it, divides uses of another’s work into two areas: on the one hand, use of another’s idea or facts, or fair use of another’s expression, which is constitutionally protected; on the other hand, use of another’s expression that’s not a fair use, which falls within the “copyright exception” to the First Amendment. So long as Congress and the courts restrict speech that’s within this copyright exception, there’s no First Amendment problem. And while the First Amendment imposes certain limits on copyright law — the requirement of copying, the idea-expression dichotomy, and some aspects of the fair use doctrine — it does not constitutionalize every nuance of the Copyright Act.

COICA’s provisions are targeted at these obvious cases of copyright infringement. The language of the bill reflects this: blocking only applies to sites “dedicated to infringing activities,” which include sites “primarily designed” to offer infringing works “in complete or substantially complete form” and only when “such activities are the central activities” of the site (emphasis added).

In Center for Democracy & Technology v. Pappert (CDT v. Pappert), a District Court case cited by several law professors in their letter in opposition to COICA, a Pennsylvania state law allowing websites to be blocked for containing child pornography was struck down as unconstitutional because it amounted to a prior restraint. 4F. Supp. 2d 606 (ED Pa, 2004). The case has been used because of the similarities between the PA law and COICA in blocking internet sites based on content. However, the similarities end there. The Pennsylvania law provided substantially different procedures than COICA does, and it was specifically those procedures that led to the court’s conclusion.

As the court in CDT v. Pappert explains:

The Act and Informal Notice process are not prior restraints in the traditional sense. They do not prevent speech from reaching the market place but remove material already available on the Internet from circulation. However, they are administrative prior restraints as that term has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. According to the Court, “only a judicial determination in an adversary proceeding ensures the necessary sensitivity to freedom of expression, only a procedure requiring a judicial determination suffices to impose a valid final restraint.” Thus, if material protected by the First Amendment is removed from circulation without these procedural protections, the seizure is invalid as a prior restraint. The Court used the term to describe a Rhode Island Commission’s practice of sending letters to book distributors that asked the distributors to remove books from circulation in Bantam Books v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58 (1963) and a procedure that allowed courts to order pre-trial seizure of films alleged to be obscene in Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana, 489 U.S. 46, 51-52 (1989).

Based on the decision in Bantam Books and Fort Wayne Books, this Court concludes the procedural protections provided by the Act are inadequate. These cases require a court to make a final determination that material is child pornography after an adversary hearing before the material is completely removed from circulation. Under the Act, a judge is only required to make a finding of probable cause, he can make this determination ex parte, and there is no requirement that the publisher or distributor receive notice or an opportunity to be heard. [Citations removed] 5CDT at 656-57.

Unlike the Pennsylvania law, COICA requires the government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a particular site is dedicated to infringing activities, an in rem proceeding is not an ex parte proceeding, and the registrant of the domain name does receive notice and an opportunity to be heard. 6See my previous post, COICA: Due Process. Thus, any comparisons between COICA and the law in CDT v. Pappert are inapposite and superficial at best.

Overbreadth

Besides the claim that COICA would act as a prior restraint, critics contend that the bill also violates the First Amendment because it would “suppress vast amounts of protected speech containing no infringing content whatsoever.” 7Law Professors’ Letter in Opposition to S. 3804 (Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act). In other words, even though copyright infringement isn’t protected under the First Amendment, other speech that is protected will be affected when the domain name for the entire site is blocked.

Any law aimed at nonprotected speech, no matter how well written, can potentially reach protected speech. To reflect this reality without leaving lawmakers powerless to address harms of nonprotected speech or conduct, the Supreme Court has developed the “substantial overbreadth” doctrine: “particularly where conduct and not merely speech is involved, we believe that the overbreadth of a statute must not only be real, but substantial as well, judged in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep” — if it is, the law is void on its face. 8Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 US 601, 615 (1973).

A law that is not substantially overbroad on its face may nevertheless be found unconstitutionally overbroad if a substantial amount of protected speech is affected by the law as it is applied. Laws affecting speech must be narrowly tailored so that even if they are not substantially overbroad on their face, a defendant engaged in protected speech does not find himself within the laws scope. 9For simplicity’s sake I’m purposely avoiding discussion of the different levels of scrutiny that are involved in First Amendment analysis by courts.

A court may find a law not narrowly tailored if less restrictive means exist to accomplish the legitimate sweep of the law. 10See, for example, United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 US 803, 813 (2000). In CDT v. Pappert the District Court took the less restrictive means test to mean that “if a statute regulating speech provides distributors of speech with alternatives for compliance and the majority of distributors reasonably choose an alternative that has the effect of burdening protected speech, the statute is subject to scrutiny as a burden on speech.” 11CDT at 652.

Courts are reluctant to declare laws substantially overbroad on their face. “[The overbreadth doctrine] has been employed by the Court sparingly and only as a last resort. Facial overbreadth has not been invoked when a limiting construction has been or could be placed on the challenged statute.” 12Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 US 601, 613 (1973). The court in CDT v. Pappert, for example, held that the law allowing a website to be blocked for providing access to child pornography was not overbroad on its face; it did not prohibit nor chill protected speech. 13CDT at 648-49.

COICA is not substantially overbroad on its face as well. It targets only websites dedicated to infringing activities — conduct that is not protected by the First Amendment. Like the statute in CDT v. Pappert, it does not prohibit nor chill protected speech.

It is doubtful that COICA would also be overbroad as applied. The language of the bill — specifically the requirement that a website’s infringing activities must amount to the “central activities” of the site — limits the breadth of COICA to unprotected speech by definition. No doubt some protected speech would end up being blocked, but the First Amendment is not a shield for copyright infringement, and courts have little sympathy for defendants in situations like this who create an “all-or-nothing” predicament like this. 14See, for example, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, LP v. Penguin Books, 109 F. 3d 1394, 1406 (9th Cir, 1997).

That’s not to say that COICA would result in no cases where a substantial amount of protected speech may be blocked. No bill operates outside the constraints of the Constitution; the First Amendment is available to everyone no matter what law is at issue. It’s possible that a specific case could arise where a specific defendant’s freedom of speech is infringed by COICA. That doesn’t mean, however, that COICA itself is unconstitutional, and it certainly doesn’t mean COICA is a vehicle of censorship. 15See, for example, Virginia v. Hicks, 539 US 113, 123-24 (2003).

References   [ + ]

1. Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 US 539, 559 (1976).
2. Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke Law Journal 147 (1998).
3. This is one example of why I think it’s important to draw distinctions between “creative” and “consumptive” uses of copyrighted works.
4. F. Supp. 2d 606 (ED Pa, 2004).
5. CDT at 656-57.
6. See my previous post, COICA: Due Process.
7. Law Professors’ Letter in Opposition to S. 3804 (Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act).
8. Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 US 601, 615 (1973).
9. For simplicity’s sake I’m purposely avoiding discussion of the different levels of scrutiny that are involved in First Amendment analysis by courts.
10. See, for example, United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 US 803, 813 (2000).
11. CDT at 652.
12. Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 US 601, 613 (1973).
13. CDT at 648-49.
14. See, for example, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, LP v. Penguin Books, 109 F. 3d 1394, 1406 (9th Cir, 1997).
15. See, for example, Virginia v. Hicks, 539 US 113, 123-24 (2003).