A common criticism of copyright law or its enforcement is that it doesn’t adequately protect first amendment rights. Activist groups like the EFF, Public Knowledge, and the Center for Democracy & Technology are quick to raise the issue at the first sign of any proposal or effort to protect copyright rights. I’ve previously addressed such arguments as they related specifically to COICA and domain name seizures.
The “free speech critique” of copyright can essentially be summed up as this: “Copyright law restricts speech: it restricts you from writing, painting, publicly performing, or otherwise communicating what you please.”1 The past few decades have seen a ton of academic scholarship devoted to this critique.2 By and large, the consensus is that the restriction exists, and something needs to be done about it.
What’s missing from these arguments, however, is any discussion about the free speech rights of copyright owners.3 Today I want to take a closer look at this discussion, one I broached before in Artistic Expression, the First Amendment, and Copyright.
Free Speech Rights of Copyright Owners
“Once it is decided … that the First Amendment operates in the copyright arena, it should be realized that it is a two-way street, for the copyright owner also has First Amendment rights.”4
So says William Patry, one of the leading experts in the US on copyright law. He recognizes what many free speech critics of copyright don’t: free speech interests lay on both sides of the copyright owner-copyright user divide. And rather than standing in contradiction to each other, the first amendment and copyright law work in tandem to protect the free speech interests of both sides.
While this point is lost to free speech critics, US courts recognize it — first amendment defenses to copyright infringement actions are consistently rejected in lawsuits. “It should not be forgotten that the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression,” wrote the Supreme Court in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises. Copyright and the first amendment co-exist to allow new ideas to be created and disseminated. Copyright provides an incentive to encourage the spread of new expression, while the first amendment removes roadblocks in the way of dissemination. What’s more, first amendment safeguards are built into copyright law: protection only extends to expression, not the underlying ideas; fair use allows criticism, commentary, and transformative uses without the permission of the copyright owner; and statutory exceptions exist for certain educational, library, and other “public” uses without permission to enhance access and dissemination of these works.
Copyright critics who raise first amendment concerns completely overlook the free speech rights of creators. One would think that the free speech rights of those who create original expression should, at the very least, be equal to the free speech rights of those who build upon existing works. But under the prevailing view, it seems that the free speech rights of creators of original expression are in fact subservient to subsequent users of that expression.
Even if we accept the notion that some people’s first amendment rights are more important than others, the copyright critic’s ranking doesn’t make sense. Why should we value the free speech rights of those who add new expression to the marketplace of ideas less than the free speech rights of those who build upon or reproduce that new expression?
As David McGowan writes in Some Realism About the Free Speech Critique of Copyright,
The free-speech critique wants courts to favor one type of speaker over another. It plays favorites. It therefore is at odds with any conception of free speech that prohibits judges from playing favorites among speakers, as both current doctrine and the most cogent speech theories do.
The Chilling Effect of Online Piracy
First Amendment doctrine cautions against laws that place a “chilling effect” on speech. Laws aimed at unprotected categories of speech (like libel or child pornography) that are not narrowly tailored may cause self-censorship or stifling of protected speech out of a fear of risking penalties or liability.
In the same vein, copyright infringement has a stifling effect on the creation and dissemination of new creation. Ineffective enforcement against infringement or undue burdens on copyright owner’s abilities to protect their rights reduces the incentive to continue to create new expression.
Essentially, copyright infringement creates a “chilling effect” on the free expression rights of creators.
This chilling effect is very real, as creators have attested to. Indie film producer Ellen Seidler recognized it while she was endeavoring to protect her rights. When submitting DMCA notices to Google to remove links to unauthorized version of her film, she was told copies of her notices would be posted to the Chilling Effects website. “The implication therein is that by asserting my rights and sending a DMCA to request the removal of infringing content I am somehow ‘chilling’ a pirate’s right to ‘free speech,’ she says. “Really? In my view the only thing being ‘chilled’ is our right to make a living.”
Comic artist Colleen Doran describes first-hand how the chilling effect of online piracy affects her:
I spent the last two years working on a graphic novel called Gone to Amerikay, written by Derek McCulloch for DC Comics/Vertigo. It will have taken me 3,000 hours to draw it and months of research. Others have contributed long hours, hard work and creativity to this process. But due to shrinking financing caused by falling sales in the division, these people are no longer employed.
The minute this book is available, someone will take one copy and within 24 hours, that book will be available for free to anyone around the world who wants to read it. 3,000 hours of my life down the rabbit hole, with the frightening possibility that without a solid return on this investment, there will be no more major investments in future work.
Freelance photographer Seth Resnick adds his perspective:
Copyright is the very basis of my existence and the existence of every freelance photographer in the country. As a freelancer, I exist only by the value of the intellectual property I am able to create. I have to control and license that property. If I don’t control the licensing I am unable to place any value on my art form of photography. Without the ability to license my intellectual property I simply can’t stay in the marketplace. A photographer or any artist who can’t stay in the market, can’t produce work which is a very part of our American culture.
Disputing the Chilling Effect of Online Piracy
Free speech critics may dismiss concerns about the “chilling effect” online piracy has on copyright holders as lacking in evidence or unworthy of attention. Yet they are quick to warn about the dangers to free speech that removing, say, a video of a dancing baby from one of numerous video sharing sites has. In the end, this argument is simply a choice between two speech interests — one that says some people’s rights are more important than others. And chilling effects are, by their definition, difficult to measure. But just as it’s not alright to say “censhorship is ok as long as no one actually ends up in jail,” it’s not alright to say “piracy is ok as long as no one actually files for bankruptcy.”
Concerns might also be dismissed by saying creators aren’t really concerned about their right to speak, they just want more money. But this type of thinking ignores the fact that copyright incentives benefit everybody. Society benefits from the creation of new works, authors and artists are encouraged to continue creating new works. All piracy does is remove the benefit from those creating the new works. As Ellen Seidler notes, with piracy, “Everyone is making money, it seems, except those who own the rights”.
Finally, it might be argued that the chilling effect of copyright infringement is no longer an issue since digital technology has somehow made copyright incentives irrelevant. The happy thoughts that everyone else benefits from the content you create will make up for the incentive copyright provides; merchandising and personal appearances are enough to recoup the expenses of devoting time to creating that content. I realize this argument warrants enough attention for an entirely separate article, but for purposes of this article, it suffices to say that the argument doesn’t justify infringing on free speech rights, and it flies in the face of reality. How many people are flocking to see news photographers in person? How many t-shirts can authors of educational books sell? The quality of the creative work doesn’t matter as much as the marketing skills of the creator, or how good she looks on camera. This same idea has certainly worked well in politics, right?
Recognizing the “chilling effect” that infringement has on the free expression rights of copyright owners is just one strand in unraveling the free speech critique of copyright. In the future, I hope to look at some of the other issues involved in the critique — why courts have categorically denied first amendment defenses in cases of infringement, and why this approach makes sense, for example.
However, I don’t mean to imply that freedom of expression is somehow not important. The first amendment reflects the importance of this freedom in our society. It is precisely because of this importance that there is a responsibility to take everyone’s freedom of expression rights into consideration. Favoring one group’s free speech interests over another’s runs counter to the values enshrined in the first amendment and the copyright clause.
- Mark Lemley & Eugene Volokh, Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke Law Journal 147 (1998). [↩]
- Just a few of the articles: Paul Goldstein, Copyright and the First Amendment, 70 Columbia Law Review 283 (1970); Melville Nimmer, Does Copyright Abridge the First Amendment Guarantees of Free Speech and Press?, 17 UCLA Law Review 1180 (1970); Lionel Sobel, Copyright and the First Amendment: A Gathering Storm?, 19 Copyright Law Symposium 43 (1971); Robert Denicola, Copyright and Free Speech: Constitutional Limitations on the Protection of Expression, 67 California Law Review 283 (1979); L. Ray Patterson, Free Speech, Copyright, and Fair Use, 40 Vanderbilt Law Review 1 (1987); Diane Zimmerman, Information as Speech, Information as Goods: Some Thoughts on Marketplaces and the Bill of Rights, 33 William & Mary Law Review665 (1992); Neil Netanel, Copyright and a Democratic Civil Society, 106 Yale Law Journal 283 (1996); Mark Lemley & Eugene Volokh, Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke Law Journal 147 (1998); Eugene Volokh & Brett McDonnell, Freedom of Speech and Independent Judgment Review in Copyright Cases, 107 Yale Law Journal 2431 (1998); Yochai Benkler, Free as the Air to Common Use: First Amendment Constraints on Enclosure of the Public Domain, 74 New York Univ. Law Review 354 (1999); Alan E. Garfield, The First Amendment As a Check on Copyright Rights, 23 Hastings Communication and Entertainment Law Journal 587 (2001); Jed Rubenfeld, Freedom of Imagination: Copyright’s Constitutionality, 112 Yale Law Journal 1 (2002); Wendy Seltzer, Free Speech Unmoored in Copyright Safe Harbors, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (2010). [↩]
- One exception is David McGowan, Some Realism About the Free Speech Critique of Copyright, 74 Fordham Law Review 101 (2005). [↩]
- William Patry, The Fair Use Privilege in Copyright Law, 469-70 (1985). [↩]