Puerto 80 Projects has filed its opening brief in its appeal of the Southern District Court of New York’s denial of its petition to release its Rojadirecta domain names — which had been seized by ICE as property used to facilitate criminal copyright infringement — prior to the completion of the civil forfeiture proceeding. It separately has a motion to dismiss before the court in that proceeding, which I wrote about last week.
Puerto 80 spends considerable time explaining why prior restraints are bad and what procedures are required under the Constitution. This point is indisputable and uncontroversial — preventing prior restraints is considered the “chief purpose” of the First Amendment.1 But what they don’t do is spend much time explaining why this particular seizure is a prior restraint.
In fact, they don’t explain why at all — they just flat-out state, “The government’s ex parte seizure of Puerto 80’s domain name constituted a prior restraint on speech.” Later, they repeat, “The government’s seizure of the subject domain names constitutes an unlawful prior restraint on speech that suppresses Puerto 80′s users’ and readers’ protected First Amendment activities.”
But calling something a prior restraint doesn’t make it a prior restraint. As the Supreme Court pointed out over 50 years ago, “The phrase ‘prior restraint’ is not a self-wielding sword.”2
The Defining Characteristics of a Prior Restraint
Ironically, Puerto 80 cites to Alexander v. US to support its first statement that this seizure is a prior restraint. It quotes the Court’s statement that “Temporary restraining orders and permanent injunctions — i.e., court orders that actually forbid speech activities — are classic examples of prior restraints.” But that doesn’t mean all restraining orders or injunctions are prior restraints — like the forfeiture of Alexander’s bookstores in this case, which the Supreme Court held constitutional.
More importantly, the Court later notes the reason to be careful with the “prior restraint” label. It said, “Because we have interpreted the First Amendment as providing greater protection from prior restraints than from subsequent punishments, see it is important for us to delineate with some precision the defining characteristics of a prior restraint.”
The second case Puerto 80 cites to for its self-defining statement provides a clue as to one of these defining characteristics: “An order that prohibits the utterance or publication of particular information or commentary imposes a ‘prior restraint’ on speech” (Emphasis added).
A prior restraint does not refer to any and all suppression of First Amendment activities; the suppression must reference specific subject matter or viewpoint. Although the Supreme Court has never fully defined “prior restraint”, it has been clear that only content-based injunctions can constitute prior restraints.3
For Puerto 80 to succeed in its prior restraint argument, then, it must show that this seizure was content-based. But how can this be? The First Amendment activities that it claims were suppressed revolve around the “forum discussions on the Rojadirecta.com and Rojadirecta.org sites”, which included “political discussions, commentary, and criticism by the site’s users.” Surely Puerto 80 isn’t claiming that the government seized the domain names because of the content of those discussions — that it perhaps wanted to restrain certain opinions about baseball games.
Now, if the government did want to suppress a site because of the message it conveyed and used the Copyright Act — or any other generally applicable statute — as a pretext, then that likely would be an impermissible prior restraint. But no one is seriously suggesting that anything of that sort has occurred here.
The only way this seizure could be characterized as a prior restraint is if Puerto 80 can convince the court that the restraint of the copyright-protected material on the site is content-based. It attempts to do so, in an argument confined to a footnote. The only legal support for its claim comes from a law review article — co-written by Mark Lemley, one of the attorneys for Puerto 80.
The article hardly counts as legal support: it makes the argument that copyright injunctions should be treated more as prior restraints because currently, and historically, they have not. Indeed, preliminary injunctions in copyright are common, as are pretrial seizures of infringing materials and tools.
Admittedly, the seizure of a domain name to be forfeited as property facilitating copyright infringement is only a recent development. But Puerto 80 makes no attempt to distinguish this action from other copyright injunctions and sanctions.
Prior Restraint in Napster
Puerto 80′s argument is reminiscent of the prior restraint argument made by Napster.
Like Puerto 80, Napster stood in the shoes of its users and argued against a proposed preliminary injunction because it “would silence the entire Napster community, violating not only Napster’s free speech rights, but those of its users as well.” This injunction would be “particularly egregious because it would silence the Napster community in advance of any ruling by the Court confirming that Napster’s directory is protected by the First Amendment. Courts have uniformly viewed any injunction that could act as a prior restraint on free speech as presumptively invalid.”
The District Court disagreed with Napster — noting that in the realm of copyright injunctions, “free speech concerns ‘are protected by and coextensive with the fair use doctrine.’” The court addressed the injunction’s reach to non-infringing portions of Napster’s service, like its message boards and chat rooms. Napster could continue to operate those with the injunction, but
In the event that Napster, Inc. cannot separate the infringing and non-infringing aspects of its service, its First Amendment argument still fails. Courts will not sustain a First Amendment challenge where the defendant entraps itself in an “all-or-nothing predicament.” Even if it is technologically impossible for Napster, Inc. to offer such functions as its directory without facilitating infringement, the court still must take action to protect plaintiffs’ copyrights.
Napster appealed the grant of the preliminary injunction to the Ninth Circuit on a number of grounds, among them its continued belief that the injunction was an impermissible prior restraint. The court, however, recognized this as a frivolous argument, saying only that it would “briefly address Napster’s First Amendment argument so that it is not reasserted on remand.”
We note that First Amendment concerns in copyright are allayed by the presence of the fair use doctrine. There was a preliminary determination here that Napster users are not fair users. Uses of copyrighted material that are not fair uses are rightfully enjoined.4
Copyright and First Amendment Challenges
The fact that the domain name seizure isn’t a prior restraint doesn’t mean there’s no First Amendment issue. The Supreme Court has said that “content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions can be applied in such a manner as to stifle free expression”5 and also that criminal and civil sanctions having some incidental effect on First Amendment activities are subject to First Amendment scrutiny “where it was conduct with a significant expressive element that drew the legal remedy in the first place … or where a statute based on a nonexpressive activity has the inevitable effect of singling out those engaged in expressive activity.”6 But these are distinct arguments that Puerto 80 does not raise in its opening brief.
Nevertheless, it should be remembered that there’s good reason why prior restraint is rarely found in cases involving copyright. Copyright is “the engine of free expression”, and infringement causes harm to a copyright holder’s free speech rights.7 What’s more, copyright has “built-in free speech safeguards” that reduce the need for relying on First Amendment doctrines like prior restraint.
We’ve even seen courts explicitly resolve infringement cases on fair use grounds which had earlier been resolved on First Amendment grounds. In Triangle Publications v. Knight-Ridder Newspapers, the appellate court began, “For years, Courts and commentators have recognized a potential conflict between copyright and the First Amendment. However, until the District Court’s opinion in the case now before us, no Court had ever held that a copyright suit could be defeated by a First Amendment defense. We affirm the result reached by the District Court, but disagree with the Court’s rationale. Contrary to the District Court, we hold that fair use constitutes a valid defense to the copyright infringement suit involved in this case.”8
In most cases concerning infringement, free speech is raised only as a “self-wielding sword” — ”the last refuge of an infringing scoundrel”.9 When a case doesn’t involve some question of legitimate appropriation of a copyrighted work, “few courts” allow defendants “to hide behind the first amendment.”10 Based on the court filings so far, it’s my opinion that there’s no legitimate appropriation here, only a web site that seems keen on raising every defense it can to avoid responsibility for facilitating infringement.
A CAMP Conference is scheduled for October 3rd; the reply brief from the US is due November 15th.
- Near v. Minnesota, 283 US 697, 713 (1931). [↩]
- Kingsley Books v. Brown, 354 US 436, 441 (1957). [↩]
- DVD Copy Control Ass’n v. Bunner, 75 P.3d 1 (Cali Sup. 2003), citing Thomas v. Chicago Park Dist., 534 US 316 (2002). [↩]
- A&M Records v. Napster, 239 F.3d 1004, 1028 (9th Cir. 2001). [↩]
- Thomas v. Chicago Park at 323. [↩]
- Alexander v. US at 557, quoting Arcara v. Cloud Books, 478 US 697, 706-07 (1986). [↩]
- See Salinger v. Colting, 607 F.3d 68, 81 (2nd Cir. 2010); Speech interests of creators; and The chilling effect of copyright infringement. [↩]
- Compare this to Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin, 252 F.3d 1165 (11th Cir. 2001), where the court vacated a preliminary injunction against the author of The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind. Although it used the term “prior restraint” in its opinion, the injunction was vacated since the defendant’s strong fair use defense made it unlikely the plaintiff would succeed on the merits of the case. [↩]
- L. Ray Patterson, Free Speech, Copyright, and Fair Use, 40 Vanderbilt Law Review 1, 36 n.110 (1987). [↩]
- Sid & Marty Krofft TV v. McDonalds, 562 F.2d 1157, 1170-71 (9th Cir. 1977). [↩]