“If you would understand anything,” said Aristotle, “observe its beginning and its development.”

Understanding the historical relationship between copyright and the First Amendment is especially relevant today, with free speech concerns raised over pending rogue sites legislation — the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House — and domain name seizures — the Second Circuit will be hearing arguments about whether the seizure of the Rojadirecta domain names constitute a prior restraint in December.

Copyright law has long provided for preliminary injunctive relief (I believe the provisions of PROTECT IP and SOPA can be seen as a species of preliminary injunctive relief), and to a lesser extent, seizure and forfeiture. Over much of the 20th century, courts have turned to the First Amendment to strengthen procedural requirements in cases involving obscenity, libel, or news reporting. Yet preliminary relief for copyright infringement — whether injunctive, through actual seizures, or otherwise — has remained immune from any successful procedural First Amendment challenge.

Why is this?

The question is difficult to answer because most of the attention on the relationship between copyright and free speech has come only recently. Until the late 1960s, the idea that there exists any tension between the First Amendment’s prohibition on government restrictions of expression and copyright law’s encouragement of expression was nearly nonexistent. Since then, however, and especially after the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Copyright Term Extension Act in the late 1990s, many have turned their attention to finding contradictions between free speech and copyright.1

While the focus on contradictions is recent, earlier scholars had noted that copyright infringement at the very least plays by different rules when it comes to the First Amendment:

It is quite evident that no new principles of liberty were intended to be set forth by the First Amendment, and that, however enticing a philosophical theory of freedom of the press and of speech may be, the guaranty must be construed with reference to the common law which gave it birth. When Blackstone declared in 1769 that the liberty of the press consisted in placing no previous restraints upon publications, he was not laying down a new principle of constitutional theory, but merely stating what he believed to be the existing law. Apparently his generalization was too broad. Injunctions against the infringement of a copyright were not infrequent in his day.2

This quote suggests that the reason why equitable remedies for copyright infringement — injunctions and seizures especially — have withstood First Amendment scrutiny where those same remedies would fail in other cases remains somewhat of a mystery.

The beginnings and development of copyright and the First Amendment are still under-observed: Eldred v. Ashcroft devoted a scant two sentences to that history to show that, since the Copyright Act of 1790 and the First Amendment were adopted close in time, they are compatible.

I believe a closer look at the historical record can shed more light on this mystery (though I don’t mean to suggest in any way that I am the first to do so).3 I think this historical record shows a number of reasons why copyright law, though not “categorically immune from challenges under the First Amendment”,4 has nevertheless existed comfortably alongside the First Amendment.

The first reason is that legal thinkers primarily conceived of copyright as a property right. Property is on the same footing as life and liberty. Freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, ends where deprivation of property begins.

Literary Property

Of course, any mention of “copyright” and “property” in the same sentence nowadays can cause some to go in a tizzy. Partly this is due to an impoverished concept of property; that property only refers to tangible objects (forgetting about intangibles like stocks, bonds, promissory notes, and other financial instruments), or that copyright can’t be property because infringement doesn’t deprive the holder of possession or ownership (except if I smash your car window, we’d say I violated your property rights even though you still possess the same amount of glass). Setting aside these naive arguments, the modern critique of copyright as property goes something like this: Although it is entirely correct to characterize copyright as property in a descriptive sense, we shouldn’t characterize copyright as property in a normative sense, because that would be bad, from a policy standpoint.5 These arguments are beyond the scope of this article — I’m concerned with whether copyright was thought of as property when the First Amendment was first enacted.

Indeed it was. In 1792, James Madison wrote that “property” has a “larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage“; this meaning includes more than just “a man’s land, or merchandize, or money.”6 Legal scholar Adam Mossoff describes this concept of property as the “dominant” understanding of property in 18th and 19th century America.7

And copyright certainly fit within this understanding of property at the time — it was referred to as “literary property” more often than not. Copyright was expressly described as property in several of the State copyright acts that predated the US Constitution.8 The Supreme Court has classified and referred to copyright as property throughout its history — in 1823, for example, the Court stated, “The protection of property should extend as well to one subject as to another: to that which results from improvements, made under the faith of titles emanating from the government, as to a proprietary interest in the soil, derived from the same source. It extends to literary property, the fruit of mental labour.”9

In 1839, the New York Chancery Court decided Brandreth v. Lance, a libel case and “the first American court decision setting aside a government action on constitutional free speech or free press grounds.”10 But in refusing to enjoin the libelous publication, the court implicitly notes that an injunction for copyright infringement would not infringe upon the liberty of the press:

It is very evident that this court cannot assume jurisdiction of the case presented by the complainant’s bill, or of any other case of the like nature, without infringing upon the liberty of the press, and attempting to exercise a power of preventive justice which, as the legislature has decided, cannot safely be entrusted to any tribunal consistently with the principles of a free government. This bill presents the simple case of an application to the court of chancery to restrain the publication of a pamphlet which purports to be a literary work, undoubtedly a tale of fiction, on the ground that it is intended as a libel upon the complainant. …

The utmost extent to which the court of chancery has ever gone in restraining any publication by injunction, has been upon the principle of protecting the rights of property. …

But it may, perhaps, be doubted whether his lordship in that case did not, to some extent, endanger the freedom of the press by assuming jurisdiction of the case as a matter of property merely, when in fact the object of the complainant’s bill was not to prevent the publication of her letters on account of any supposed interest she had in them as literary property, but to restrain the publication of a private correspondence, as a matter of feeling only. His decision in that case has, however, as I see, received the unqualified approbation of the learned American commentator on equity jurisprudence.11

The court also notes in a footnote, “There is, perhaps, but one instance in the books, of any judge having maintained the existence of a power in the court of chancery of restraining publications on any other ground, but that of property and copyright” (Emphasis added).

Liberty of the Press does not Limit Copyright Injunctions

The idea that copyright is a property right and injunctions to protect property rights do not infringe free speech remained throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The Columbia Law Review wrote in 1913:

This immunity from an injunction, while applicable to libels, is not similarly applicable to other forms of injurious publications where the historical requirement of a jury trial is not so pressing. Accordingly, where the act of publication results in intimidation and coercion it is treated as an ordinary crime, and the liberty of the press does not then limit the jurisdiction of equity to protect property. Furthermore, according to the prevailing view, it seems that a publication, no matter how innocent in itself, may be enjoined if it is made in pursuance of a scheme which has an enjoinable element. Thus, although the courts are at variance as to whether an injunction may issue against a boycott, they are agreed that wherever such is the case, publications in aid thereof, even if libels, cannot claim the protection of the guaranty. In establishing this doctrine they assert that the right to engage in a lawful occupation is not less essential than that of free speech. In order, therefore, to obtain the greatest possible freedom of action and speech equally for all, these conflicting constitutional rights must be exercised in accordance with the maxim, Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedasCertainly, the press should not be employed unjustifiably to ruin another’s occupation, and where such ruin is imminent the injunction, though a dangerous weapon, becomes a proper one [Emphasis added].12

And in 1971, Justice White of the Supreme Court itself weighed in, noting that “The Congress has authorized a strain of prior restraints against private parties in certain instances … Article I, § 8, of the Constitution authorizes Congress to secure the “exclusive right” of authors to their writings, and no one denies that a newspaper can properly be enjoined from publishing the copyrighted works of another.”13

Today, preliminary injunctions are common in copyright cases, and seizures of infringing goods are common, both through courts and administrative agencies. At the same time, while defendants have increasingly raised First Amendment defenses in the past 40 years, those defenses have almost without exception been unsuccessful.14

Call it what you will — a permissible prior restraint, a First Amendment exception, or a recognition of competing liberty interests — there is an unbroken historical practice of providing remedies for copyright infringement that would constitutionally fail in other areas of the law. This practice is premised in part on the view that copyright is a property right, and freedom of expression does not shield a defendant from invasions of property rights. As seen above, this premise appears to be established by the time of Blackstone’s Commentaries and has been alluded to several times since then.

Unbroken historical practice is obviously not ipse dixit proof of the constitutional firmity of a practice. But the development of the historical practice does increase our understanding of these issues today. Also, as mentioned earlier, the historical record reveals other reasons why the conflict that critics see between free speech and copyright has not been embraced by courts, reasons that I hope to write about in future posts.


  1. More detail on the history of copyright and First Amendment scholarship at my post, Copyright and Censorship. []
  2. Freedom of the Press and the Injunction, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 8, pp. 732-734 (Dec. 1913). []
  3. See, for example, Edward Lee, Guns and Speech Technologies: How the Right to Bear Arms Affects Copyright Regulations of Speech Technologies (2008) — and I’m always interested in learning about other examples. []
  4. Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 US 186, 221 (2003). []
  5. See, for example, William Patry, Does it matter if copyright is property? Patry Copyright Blog, June 20, 2006, “What those who seek to have copyright classified as property is clear enough though: Blackstonian sole dominion, justified by the very classification of property … But what if copyright is just a tort, as indeed courts refer to it as. Might that not lead to consideration of things in a different light, one that involves more of the balancing of interests one typically sees, say in, negligence actions, a Coase Theorem of copyright?”;  Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyright as Cudgel, Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 2, 2002. “We make a grave mistake when we choose to engage in discussions of copyright in terms of ‘property.’ Copyright is not about ‘property’ as commonly understood. It is a specific state-granted monopoly issued for particular policy reasons.” []
  6. James Madison, Property. []
  7. Is Copyright Property? 42 San Diego Law Review 29, 41 (2005). []
  8. “Whereas the improvement of knowledge, the progress of civilization, the publick weal of the Commonwealth, and the advancement of human happiness, greatly depend on the efforts of learned and ingenious persons in the various arts and sciencs: As the principal encouragement such persons can have to make great and beneficial exertions of this nature, must exist in the legal security of the fruits of their study and industry to themselves, and as such security is one of the natural rights of all men, there being no property more peculiarly man’s own than that which is produced by the labour of his mind.” Massachusetts Copyright Statute (1783)New Hampshire Copyright Statute (1783), Rhode Island Copyright Statute (1783).

    “An act for securing to the authors of literary works an exclusive property therein for a limited time.” Virginia Copyright Statute (1785) (title).

    “An Act for securing Literary Property: Whereas nothing is more strictly a man’s own than the fruit of his study, and it is proper that men should be encouraged to pursue useful knowledge by the hope of reward; and as the security of literary property must greatly tend to encourage genius, to promote useful discoveries and to the general extension of art and commerce.” North Carolina Copyright Statute (1785). []

  9. Green v. Biddle, 21 US 1, 57; See also Wheaton v. Peters, 33 US 591 (1834), discussing whether “literary property” is perpetual under copyright statute; Stephens v. Cady, 55 US 528, 531 (1853), speaking of the “property in the copy-right”; Canal Co. v. Clark, 80 US 311, 322 (1872), noting the “property” that exists “in copyrights”; Baker v. Selden, 101 US 99, 102 (1880), describing copyright as “exclusive property”; Holmes v. Hurst, 174 US 82, 86 (1899), explaining the nature of the “property” protected by copyright; Bobbs-Merrill v. Straus, 210 US 339, 346 (1908), referring to “copyright property”; Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 US 123, 127 (1932), “The production to which the protection of copyright may be accorded is the property of the author and not of the United States”; Dowling v. United States, 473 US 207, 217 (1985), exploring the “property rights of a copyright holder”; Stewart v. Abend, 495 US 207, 223 (1990), “the aspects of a derivative work added by the derivative author are that author’s property”. []
  10. Eugene Volokh, Flag Burning and Free Speech, Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2009. []
  11. Brandreth v. Lance, 8 Paige Ch. 24, 26 (N.Y. Ch. 1839). []
  12. Freedom of the Press and the Injunction, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 8, pp. 732-734 (Dec. 1913); See also Constitutional Protection of the Right of Freedom of Speech and of the Press, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 7, pp. 622-624 (Nov. 1917), “In general, so highly has freedom of speech and of the press been held that, regardless of subsequent punishment, no censorship before publication has been tolerated, and, in consequence, to this day, courts will neither enjoin publications nor allow interference with them, except in the special case where written utterances are a part of a conspiracy to injure property [Emphasis added].” The footnote following this text reads, “When the publication was a petition repudiated by its signers, an injunction was granted on the basis of property right in the signature. Similarly, the infringement of a copyright has been enjoined”; The Americana: A universal reference library, comprising the arts and sciences, literature, history, biography, geography, commerce, etc., of the world, Volume 12, “Press, Freedom of the”, George Edwin Rines editor (1908): “Such legal checks [on the liberty of the press] as remain are merely intended to prevent outrages of religion or decency, to protect subjects from defamation, and to conserve the copyright of authors.” []
  13. New York Times v. U.S., 403 US 713, J. White, concurrence, n.1 (1971). []
  14. I provided examples in previous posts, including ICE Seizures Criticism: Magic Words, Responding to Sellars: Copyright and Content-based Regulations, and Rojadirecta seeks refuge in First Amendment. []


  1. “intangibles like stocks, bonds, promissory notes, and other financial instruments”

    I own both stocks and bonds.
    Physical objects.
    The only way they can be utilized is if I, or someone else has physical possession of them.
    If I sell my stocks, bonds, etc. I surrender physical possession of them to the new owner.
    If I buy stocks, bonds, etc. the previous owner surrenders physical possession of them to me.
    This is true even if the transaction is accomplished electronically.

    • I take it that there’s a bunch of notes with your name on ‘em in your bank’s vault then?

      Oh, I forgot: banks don’t work that way!

      The documents you speak of are nothing more than a way of keeping track of who owns (or owes) what. Their physicality contains no value. You could chuck the entire pile of papers into a fire and lose nothing, provided that there exists an indendent record someplace that confirms your ownership – the trend these days is towards electronic book-keeping.

      Except, that this eliminates the concept of physical possession (which was always an illusion in any case). What matters is that you have some method of enforcing your right of ownership. Waving a piece of paper around will do you no good if the person you’re dealing with simply laughs in your face and you have no legal recourse to back your claim.

      I am continually astounded at how “digital natives” are wedded to misconceptions that atoms are somehow different from bits when it comes to storing information.

    • Yes, you can own a physical document, but that is not what you but or sell when you buy or sell stock. You are buying or selling shares in the ownership of a company. A document does not build automobiles or perfume or roller-skates; a company does that. You can keep track of your ownership with a document, or with notches on a tally stick or with cuneiform markings on a clay tablet, but all of those simply record the ownership of an intangible property, in this case, a partial share of all a company’s assets and the potential to share in its future profits. People don’t buy stocks and bonds for the document itself.

  2. My comment is somewhat off the main point of the ‘tension’ between copyright and the First Amendment. While I think the basic premise here is sound – that copyright is a form of property, I think it goes a little beyond that in assuming that copyright is entitled to the same remedies that most other forms of property are entitled to (i.e. injunctive relief). Sure that may be true historically, but the reasons for that are lessening.

    The underlying assumption is that property = property = property. There are significant differences between the rights the law affords to a copyright holder than what the law affords to your tangible personal property, or your house. All property consists of a bundle of rights to exclude others, and these bundles of rights vary greatly between various types of property.

    As such, it doesn’t follow precisely from there that the remedies available for various property violations should be invariable either. Copyright, explicitly by the text of the Constitution, must be tied to the progress of science and the useful arts. As such, the law is required to promote societal economic interests over other theories, such as Lockean labor theory or moral rights. Given that constraint, which doesn’t exist for other forms of common law property (with some exceptions), there is an extremely good argument that the application of strict property rules to copyright may not be the best answer.

    Rather, there are good arguments to be made that the economic goals of copyright may be best enforced using liability rules. As such, I’m not sure I find most of the historical arguments in favor of injunctions that convincing. The common law evolves over time, as does our understanding of the Constitution. It may well be that the First Amendment offers some protection from prior restraint as to publishing copyrighted material, while providing no protection from ex post liability for such conduct.

    • Frankly speaking, I cannot see why this would be the case.

      If economic impacts are what we are looking at and unlicensed publishing of copyrighted materials would be subject to ex post liability in any case, doesn’t it make more sense to prevent damage rather than try to assess and redress it after the fact?

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