I’ll be taking a holiday break from blogging, so this will be the last post of 2011. A big thank you to all my readers for a great year.

Small Copyright Claims Request for Comment — “The U.S. Copyright Office is undertaking a study at the request of Congress to assess whether and, if so, how the current legal system hinders or prevents copyright owners from pursuing copyright infringement claims that have a relatively small economic value (‘small copyright claims’); and recommend potential changes in administrative, regulatory, and statutory authority to improve the adjudication of these small copyright claims.” Public comments are due January 16, 2012.

My DNS Filtering Research before House SOPA Panel — Engineer George Ou explains why the main assertions against DNS filtering are generally incorrect. In large part, they are non-technical arguments couched as technical arguments.

Myth Versus Fact: Debunking Dishonest and Inaccurate Claims Against Congressional Legislation to Stop Online Piracy — The Center for Individual Freedom’s Timothy H. Lee takes aim at fallacious claims used to oppose rogue sites legislation.

Robert Levine Tells the Rest of the Story — Bill Rosenblatt presents a thorough and compelling review of Free Ride. “Lobbying organizations’ modus operandi is to rally people and organizations around messages that elicit contributions.  Messages like “keep the Internet free and open” and “fight censorship” resonate with the public, especially when they align with getting content for free.  When a company like Google funds these organizations, the effect is to put a positive PR spin behind activities that benefit those companies — a spin that the likes of the RIAA and MPAA don’t enjoy (to put it mildly).”

Land of the “Free” — Ken Sanney asks, “Could the communal view of intellectual property advocated by such corporate giants as Google be pushing America from a heavily individualistic ownership culture to a more communal ‘Europeanized’ culture?”

ASCAP’s 10 Must-Read Career Development Articles from 2011 — Ten informative articles for songwriters, though many would be just as helpful for musicians and recording artists in general.

2011 Year in Review: Best of Art — Design Milk brings their own ‘best of’ list, devoted primarily to graphic design.

Artists that called it a day in 2011 — Paul Lamere has compiled a near-comprensive list of musicians and recording artists who have stopped making music this year, whether by passing away or retiring.

The 20 Unhappiest People You Meet In The Comments Sections Of Year-End Lists — Required reading before looking at any year-end lists. “3. The Person Who Is Exactly Right. ‘It really seems like this list of things you thought were good is just your opinion.'”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit held that video sharing site Veoh is immune from copyright liability under the DMCA in what will likely become a seminal ruling for copyright and the internet.

Plaintiff Universal Music Group had asked the Circuit Court to reverse the lower court’s holding that Veoh qualified for the DMCA safe harbor on several grounds:

  • “[T]he alleged infringing activities do not fall within the plain meaning of ‘infringement of copyright by reason of the storage [of material] at the direction of a user'”
  • “Veoh had actual knowledge of infringement, or was ‘aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity [wa]s apparent'”
  • “Veoh ‘receive[d] a financial benefit directly attributable to . . . infringing activity’ that it had the right and ability to control.”

The Circuit Court rejected all of these arguments. The full opinion is available here. Some preliminary thoughts follow.

Infringement by Reason of Storage

The court’s conclusion that Veoh’s operations fall within the scope of § 512(c) is not a surprise. It interpreted the statute’s “by reason of” language broadly — protecting service providers from any infringing activity that occurs on their site stemming from a user’s upload.

But while this interpretation may be reasonable in light of how the internet has developed, it is no doubt an expansion on the original intent of the language. The court says “if Congress wanted to confine § 512(c) exclusively to web hosts rather than reach a wider range of service providers, we very much doubt it would have done so with the oblique ‘by reason of storage’ language.” But of course, this reasoning begs the question. When Congress passed the DMCA, “user-generated content” had yet to even enter the lexicon — Congress couldn’t have factored a type of service provider that didn’t exist yet into the law.

I’ve talked previously about how sites like Veoh, YouTube, and other Web 2.0/UGC sites are arguably beyond the scope of protection of 512(c). The provision was drafted at a time when storing content at the direction of a user was primarily a collateral or passive function of service providers. For UGC sites, this “storage” is the sine qua non of their business model.

I’m certainly not saying such sites should be strictly liable for infringement by their users, or even required to monitor or prescreen uploads. But I also don’t think the only thing they need do to qualify for the DMCA safe harbor is respond to takedown notices. Unauthorized content unquestionably subsidizes many UGC sites — it’s perfectly reasonable that such sites subsidize copyright enforcement. As unavoidable as the expansion of the scope of this safe harbor might be, it may be the case that the language may need to be revisited at some point down the road.

Actual and Apparent Knowledge

The court’s holding that “general knowledge that [a service provider’s] services could be used to post infringing material” is insufficient to eliminate DMCA safe harbor protection is consistent with what other courts have held.1

The court does, however, engage in a bit of curious reasoning to come to this conclusion. It notes:

Further, Congress’ express intention that the DMCA “facilitate making available quickly and conveniently via the Internet . . . movies, music, software, and literary works” — precisely the service Veoh provides — makes us skeptical that UMG’s narrow interpretation of § 512(c) is plausible. S. Rep. No. 105-190, at 8.

This is curious because the quote used by the 9th Circuit used is not referring to the purpose behind the DMCA safe harbors, it is referring to the purpose behind the anti-circumvention and copyright management information provisions of the DMCA.2

By conflating the purpose of stronger digital protections for copyright owners with the purpose for limiting the liability of service providers, it essentially creates a logical absurdity within the Copyright Act: promoting the progress of the arts and sciences through exclusive rights is accomplished when ignoring those exclusive rights is made easier.

The Ninth Circuit leaves us still with little meaningful distinction between actual knowledge and apparent — so-called “red flag” — knowledge. It says “that the burden” for bringing red flags to service provider’s attention “remains with the copyright holder rather than the service provider.” The summary conclusion is that “Veoh’s general knowledge that it hosted copyrightable material and that its services could be used for infringement is insufficient to constitute a red flag.”

But it does mention one way a service provider can have apparent knowledge, at least in theory. The Ninth Circuit notes that if “notification had come from a third party, such as a Veoh user, rather than from a copyright holder, it might meet the red flag test because it specified particular infringing material.”

Right and Ability to Control

The clear discussion of the interplay between safe harbor and common law vicarious liability is to be commended. As court explains, the two are independent: Congress intended the safe harbor to protect against vicarious liability if the statute’s conditions are met, even though the requirement that a service provider doesn’t have the “right and ability to control” infringing activity seems synonymous with the common law articulation of vicarious liability. Yet some courts still get tripped up by this concept.

However, I am a bit troubled by court’s interpretation of “right and ability to control” as being dependent on scope of service:

Where, as here, it is a practical impossibility for Veoh to ensure that no infringing material is ever uploaded to its site, or to remove unauthorized material that has not yet been identified to Veoh as infringing, we do not believe that Veoh can properly be said to possess the “needed powers . . . or needed resources” to be “competen[t] in” exercising the sort of “restraining domination” that § 512(c)(1)(B) requires for denying safe harbor eligibility.

You hear this often from DMCA maximalists: it’s just too hard to control infringement on the internet. But this seems similar to a “too big to fail” argument — eventually, a service provider becomes “too big to be liable for infringement.”

Viewed this way, the interpretation doesn’t seem to comport with real world views on liability. Imagine a factory owner who says he dumps a lot of stuff into the river, and it’s not possible as a practical matter to ensure that none of that stuff is toxic. Or imagine a government that says it arrests a lot of people, and it doesn’t have the needed resources to exercise the type of restraining domination to ensure that none of them were wrongfully arrested.

Yes, there are differences between offline services and online services. But I don’t know if that should mean a complete departure from liability principles — especially since sites like Veoh and YouTube did not sprout online, organically and fully-formed. The fact remains that sites like these were purposely designed to provide content acquired through user uploads, just as services like Hulu and Netflix were purposely designed to provide content acquired through licensing.

As I said earlier, I’m not suggesting in the least that sites like Veoh should be responsible for every upload. Just that “the right and ability to control” shouldn’t necessarily hinge on popularity.

Finally, it is good to see the Ninth Circuit reaffirm the fact that “willful blindness” can constitute knowledge under this section:

Accordingly, we hold that the ‘right and ability to control’ under § 512(c) requires control over specific infringing activity the provider knows about. A service provider’s general right and ability to remove materials from its services is, alone, insufficient. Of course, a service provider cannot willfully bury its head in the sand to avoid obtaining such specific knowledge.

What’s Next?

The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on the DMCA safe harbor and dismissal of the claims against the Investor defendants, who had been sued along with Veoh. It remanded to the lower court only for determination of whether Veoh can collect certain costs, excluding attorney’s fees, under FRCP 68.

That means the lawsuit is essentially over, barring an appeal by UMG to the Supreme Court.

The Second Circuit, of course, is currently considering similar issues in Viacom’s lawsuit against YouTube. It isn’t bound to follow the ruling here, but it will most likely have a look at the opinion. That opinion, of course, is still months away.


  1. See, for example, A & M Records v. Napster, 239 F.3d 1004 (9th Cir. 2001); Viacom v. YouTube, 718 F.Supp.2d 514, 523 (SDNY 2010); Corbis Corp. v. Amazon, 351 F.Supp.2d 1090, 1109 (WD Wash 2004). []
  2. The HRCC has a copy of S. Rep. No. 105-190 available on its site. The relevant portion in full reads:

    Due to the ease with which digital works can be copied and distributed worldwide virtually instantaneously, copyright owners will hesitate to make their works readily available on the Internet without reasonable assurance that they will be protected against massive piracy. Legislation implementing the treaties provides this protection and creates the legal platform for launching the global digital on-line marketplace for copyrighted works. It will facilitate making available quickly and conveniently via the Internet the movies, music, software, and literary works that are the fruit of American creative genius. It will also encourage the continued growth of the existing off-line global marketplace for copyrighted works in digital format by setting strong international copyright standards.

    At the same time, without clarification of their liability, service providers may hesitate to make the necessary investment in the expansion of the speed and capacity of the Internet. In the ordinary course of their operations service providers must engage in all kinds of acts that expose them to potential copyright infringement liability. For example, service providers must make innumerable electronic copies by simply transmitting information over the Internet. Certain electronic copies are made to speed up the delivery of information to users. Other electronic copies are made in order to host World Wide Web sites. Many service providers engage in directing users to sites in response to inquiries by users or they volunteer sites that users may find attractive. Some of these sites might contain infringing material. In short, by limiting the liability of service providers, the DMCA ensures that the efficiency of the Internet will continue to improve and that the variety and quality of services on the Internet will continue to expand. []

The question I’ve been asking in a series of recent posts is whether history can provide any insight into current claims that copyright law and the First Amendment conflict. As I noted, the Congress’s constitutional authority to secure exclusive rights to creators and the First Amendment’s prohibition on Congress making any laws abridging the freedom of speech and the press coexisted for nearly two centuries before any conflict between the two was suggested by scholars or considered by courts.

Surely there must be something to explain that two hundred years of near silence. And if we can explain it, we should be able to better understand how to approach current debates concerning the two areas of law.

I previously noted that copyright was primarily conceived as a property right in the 18th and 19th centuries, and invasions of property rights were not part of the freedom of the press. I also noted that before the First Amendment was ratified, a majority of the 13 original US states had passed copyright laws after providing for the freedom of the press, lending strength to the argument that the Framers conceived the two as wholly consistent.

As I’ve researched this question, I’ve realized more and more that one of the keys to understanding the history is understanding how people in the 18th and 19th centuries conceived “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.”

There’s a certain attraction to an absolutist First Amendment: “No law” means no law.1 But that position is not very helpful, since the Amendment doesn’t define “freedom of speech” or freedom of the press. If, on the one hand, “freedom of speech” means one can say anything at anytime without facing liability, then the FDA is acting unconstitutionally when it requires pharmaceutical companies to list side effects of the medication they sell. On the other hand, if “freedom of speech” means only the freedom to agree with the government, then Congress could enact all sorts of constitutional speech regulations.2 In this sense, you could argue that everyone is a First Amendment absolutist, the disagreement is only over the meaning of “freedom of speech.”3

Freedom of the Press

“What is the liberty of the press?” asked Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, a question that best illustrates how the concept was perceived at the time.

Nowadays, it is perhaps most common to refer to the right of “free expression” as a combination of the rights of free speech and a free press.4 But when the First Amendment was adopted, freedom of press and speech were distinct enough to be mentioned separately. In a very broad sense, “freedom of the press” was the right to publish that which you had the right to speak — the liberty of the press was the expansion of the freedom of speech “by mechanical means,” as one 19th century author put it.5 Far more debate at the time centered around the meaning of the freedom or liberty of the press than the freedom of speech.

The invention of the printing press allowed the dissemination of speech on a grand scale. As a result, it was soon strictly controlled by political and religious authorities. The idea of a press free from this control in England was influenced heavily by the writings of John Milton and became a reality after the Licensing Act of 1662, which prohibited any printing without a government license, finally expired in 1695.

A full discussion on what the liberty of the press meant after this time is beyond one blog post, so I’ll focus on the key points.

First, liberty of the press, at a minimum, meant that a government could not require prior approval for someone to publish a work. William Blackstone wrote that this liberty “consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications” though it does not forbid subsequent punishment for criminal matter. The reasoning for this was that the ability to subject the press to the power of a government censor or licensor “is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion, and government.”6

Thomas Paine wrote about the liberty of the press from an American perspective, explaining how the concept was a result of history:

Nothing is more common with printers, especially of newspapers, than the continual cry of the Liberty of the Press, as if because they are printers, they are to have more privileges than other people. As the term “Liberty of the Press” is adopted in this country without being understood, I will state the origin of it, and show what it means. The term comes from England, and the case was as follows:

Prior to what is in England called the revolution, which was in 1689, no work could be published in that country, without first obtaining the permission of an officer appointed by the government for inspecting works intended for publication. The same was the case in France, except that in France there were forty who were called censors, and in England there was but one, called Imprimateur.

At the revolution, the office of Imprimateur was abolished, and as works could then be published without first obtaining the permission of the government officer, the press was, in consequence of that abolition, said to be free, and it was from this circumstance that the term Liberty of the Press arose. The press, which is a tongue to the eye, was then put exactly in the case of the human tongue. A man does not ask liberty before hand to say something he has a mind to say, but he becomes answerable afterwards for the atrocities he may utter. In like manner, if a man makes the press utter atrocious things, he becomes as answerable for them as if he had uttered them by word of mouth. Mr. Jefferson has said in his inaugural speech, that “error of opinion might be tolerated, when reason was left free to combat it.” This is sound philosophy in cases of error. But there is a difference between error and licentiousness.

Some lawyers in defending their clients, for the generality of lawyers, like Swiss soldiers, will fight on either side, have often given their opinion of what they defined the liberty of the press to be. One said it was this, another said it was that, and so on, according to the case they were pleading. Now these men ought to have known that the term, liberty of the press, arose from a FACT, the abolition of the office of Imprimateur, and that opinion has nothing to do in the case. The term refers to the fact of printing free from prior restraint, and not at all to the matter printed, whether good or bad. The public at large, or in case of prosecution, a jury of the conntry, will be judges of the matter.7

This prohibition on prior restraints is at the core of the liberty of the press and the one aspect that everyone agrees on.8 What the liberty of the press means beyond that, however, was subject to great debate.

Second, this debate over the nature of the freedom of the press beyond the prohibition on prior restraints revolved largely around libel: whether defamatory, seditious, blasphemous, or obscene.9 Could government punish political criticism? Was truth a defense to published statements that injured an individual’s reputation?10 A great deal of these debates was spurred by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which would be the most significant event in free speech history until the espionage and sedition acts passed during World War I (acts which served as the genesis for modern First Amendment jurisprudence).11

Copyright rarely entered in any of these debates, and when it did, it only did so peripherally. When Pennsylvania was discussing the ratification of the US Constitution in 1787, for example, one delegate raised the concern that, without a federal bill of rights protecting the liberty of the press, Congress might use its power to secure exclusive rights to authors not to pass a copyright law but to return to a general system of press licensing.12

But there is enough evidence to suggest that copyright law was generally — and noncontroversially — conceived of as completely outside the scope of the liberty of the press. Enjoining or restraining the publication of infringing material was a permissible prior restraint.

A Permissible Prior Restraint

The shared history of the liberty of the press and copyright law reinforces this idea.

As mentioned above, William Blackstone described the liberty of the press as “laying no previous restraints upon publications.” But elsewhere, he recognized that English courts frequently enjoined publications that infringed on copyright.

In the United States following the Revolutionary War, liberties were jealously guarded by the states. Yet six of the twelve pre-Constitution state copyright acts — Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina — explicitly gave the author of a work “the sole liberty of printing, reprinting, and vending” that work, suggesting that protection of copyright was compatible with the goals of a free press.

James Iredell, one of the first Supreme Court Justices of the United States, wrote in 1788 while the Constitution was undergoing ratification:

The liberty of the press is always a grand topic for declamation, but the future Congress will have no other authority over this than to secure to authors for a limited time an exclusive privilege of publishing their works. This authority has been long exercised in England, where the press is as free as among ourselves or in any country in the world; and surely such an encouragement to genius is no restraint on the liberty of the press, since men are allowed to publish what they please of their own, and so far as this may be deemed a restraint upon others it is certainly a reasonable one. [Emphasis added.]13

As noted earlier, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 triggered sharp debate over the liberty of the press. At times, copyright law was used to illustrate how that liberty was a delimited one:

When religion is concerned, Congress shall make no law respecting the subject: when the freedom of the press is concerned, Congress shall make no law abridging its freedom; but they may make any laws on the subject which do not abridge its freedom. And in fact, the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution authorizes them in express terms “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times, to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Now if Congress could not make any laws respecting the freedom of the press, they could not secure for limited times to authors their respective writings, by prohibiting those writings from being published and vended, except by those whom the authors should expressly permit.14

Louisiana, which became a state in 1812, enacted a comprehensive code of laws in 1825. The Code was largely the result of efforts by appointed Edward Livingston, a former member of the US House of Representatives and opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts, to devise a comprehensive criminal code for the state. Though never enacted, the importance of the Code shouldn’t be underestimated.15

The Code is notable for including a section on “Offenses against the liberty of the press.” As Livingston explained in a preliminary report for the code:

It has generally been thought a sufficient protection to declare, that no punishment should be inflicted on those who legally exercise the right of publishing; but hitherto no penalties have been denounced against those who illegally abridge this liberty. Constitutional provisions are, in our republics, universally introduced to assert the right, but no sanction is given to the law. Yet do not the soundest principles require it? If the liberty of publishing be a right, is it sufficient to say that no one shall be punished for exercising it? I have a right to possess my property, yet the law does not confine itself to a declaration that I shall not be punished for using it; something more is done; and it is fenced round with penalties, imposed on those who deprive me of its enjoyment.

The Lousiana Code of 1825 made it a misdemeanor for anyone to use violence, threats, or other means to prevent a person from exercising their freedom of speech or the press. The only exception for this was the filing of a lawsuit for libel or copyright infringement.

The law also made it against the law for a judge to enjoin, restrain, or prevent the publication of any writing, punishable by a fine ranging from $500-1000 (in 1825 dollars) and a two year suspension. There was only one exception to this:

It is no infringement of the last article to grant an injunction against the publication of any literary work, on the application of a person who shall satisfy the court or judge granting the injunction, that he is the author or proprietor of the work intended to be published, and that the publication will be injurious to his rights.

Similar provisions were nearly adopted by the US Congress itself, though not for the country as a whole.

The District of Columbia was established as the capitol of the United States shortly after the Constitution was adopted and placed under the exclusive control of the federal government. For decades, efforts were made to codify the civil and criminal laws that governed the District.16

One such effort led to a proposed system of laws that was reported in a joint committee of Congress in February of 1832. This code was heavily influenced by Livingston’s Louisiana code; the provisions for offenses against the liberty of the press were imported word for word. The District of Columbia, however, declined to adopt the proposed code.

The idea of copyright as a restraint congruous with the liberty of the press continued throughout the 20th century.

For example, the following is taken from the Columbia Law Review in 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 … Similarly, the infringement of a copyright has been enjoined.17

And this is from the Supreme Court in 1971:

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.18

So it would seem that throughout the history of copyright, protection of an author’s exclusive rights was not seen as offensive to the freedom of the press.


  1. First Amendment absolutism was embraced by Supreme Court Justice Black in the mid-20th century but never accepted by courts. Today it is very much a minority view. []
  2. This example isn’t hyperbole. As debates over the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 raged, newspaper editor Benjamin Russell wrote, in support of the law, that “it is patriotism to write in favor of our government — it is sedition to write against it.” []
  3. See Eugene Volokh, What Part of “Make No Law” Don’t I Understand? for more about this. []
  4. See, for example, Connick v. Myers, 461 US 138, 154 (1983); United States v. O’Brien, 391 US 367, 377 (1968); New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 US 254, 285 (1964). []
  5. James Paterson, The Liberty of the Press, Speech, and Public Worship, pg. 14, (London, 1880); See generally Eugene Volokh, “The Freedom … of the Press”, From 1791 to 1868 to Now — Freedom of the Press as an Industry, or the Press as a Technology? 160 University of Pennsylvania Law Review (2011). []
  6. Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, Ch. 11. []
  7. The Political Writings of Thomas Paine Volume 2, pp. 464-65 (J.P. Mendum, ed. 1859). []
  8. See James Wilson, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, December 1, 1787: “What is meant by the liberty of the press is, that there should be no antecedent restraint upon it; but that every author is responsible when he attacks the security or welfare of the government, or the safety, character, and property of the individual.”; Respublica v. Oswald, 1 US 319 (1788); Henry Lee, Report of the Minority on the Virginia Resolutions, J. House of Delegates (Va.), 6:93-9522 January 22, 1799, “In fact the liberty of the press is a term which has a definite and appropriate signification, completely understood. It signifies a liberty to publish, free from previous restraint, any thing and every thing at the discretion of the printer only, but not the liberty of spreading with impunity false and scandalous slanders which may destroy the peace and mangle the reputation of an individual or of a community.”; Commonwealth v. Blanding, 3 Pick. 304 (Mass. 1825); “Besides, it is well understood, and received as a commentary on this provision for the liberty of the press, that it was intended to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practised by other governments, and in early times here, to stifle the efforts of patriots towards enlightening their fellow subjects upon their rights and the duties of rulers. The liberty of the press was to be unrestrained, but he who used it was to be responsible in case of its abuse; like the right to keep fire arms, which does not protect him who uses them for annoyance or destruction.”; Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833: “That this amendment was intended to secure to every citizen an absolute right to speak, or write, or print, whatever he might please, without any responsibility, public or private, therefor, is a supposition too wild to be indulged by any rational man. … the language of this amendment imports no more, than that every man shall have a right to speak, write, and print his opinions upon any subject whatsoever, without any prior restraint, so always, that he does not injure any other person in his rights, person, property, or reputation; and so always, that he does not thereby disturb the public peace, or attempt to subvert the government. It is neither more nor less, than an expansion of the great doctrine, recently brought into operation in the law of libel, that every man shall be at liberty to publish what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends.”; Patterson v. Colorado, 205 US 454, 462 (1907). []
  9. See Henry Schofield, 2 Essays on Constitutional Law and Equity 514-29 (1921). []
  10. See Eugene Volokh, The Original Meaning of the Free Speech/Press Clause, Sept. 15, 2008. []
  11. See Steven G. Gey, The Brandenburg Paradigm and Other First Amendments, 12 Journal of Constitutional Law 971, 975 (2010). []
  12. “Tho’ it is not declared that Congress have a power to destroy the liberty of the press; yet, in effect, they will have it. For they will have the powers of self-preservation. They have a power to secure to authors the right of their writings. Under this, they may license the press no doubt; and under licensing the press, they may suppress it.” Robert Whitehill, remarks of December 1, 1787, in Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution 1787-1788, pg 771. []
  13. Answers to Mr. Mason’s Objections to the New Constitution Recommended by the Late Convention at Philadelphia, in Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, pg. 361. []
  14. Remarks of George Taylor, December 21, 1798, The Virginia Report of 1799-1900, Touching the Alien and Sedition Laws; Together with the Virginia Resolutions of December 21, 1798, pg. 136. []
  15. Stuart P. Green, The Louisiana Criminal Code: Ten Proposals for Reform, 2002. []
  16. Justice Walter S. Cox, Efforts to Obtain a Code of Laws for the District of Columbia, 1898. []
  17. Constitutional Protection of the Right of Freedom of Speech and of the Press 17 Columbia Law Review 622-24 (Nov. 1917). []
  18. New York Times v. United States, 403 US 713, 731 n.1 (1971)(J. White dissent). []

Tomorrow is Beethoven’s birthday.1 The famous composer lived when copyright doctrine was still young. It had yet to become useful as legal protection for many composers, yet — little known fact — Beethoven was still concerned about piracy.

Economist Frederic Scherer relates a couple stories about this concern in his paper The Emergence of Musical Copyright in Europe from 1709 to 1850. He notes that taking credit for the work of another composer was certainly a problem of the time, but

Much more common was the uncompensated performance of a work composed by others. Until performance rights became an accepted feature of copyright, there was little composers could do about this. Beethoven is said to have combatted such imitation by his “deadly enemies” in Vienna by making his piano sonatas so difficult that few if any could play them as well as the master.

Copying musical scores was also a problem, since composers of the time were increasingly coming to rely on these as a source of income. Composers employed a number of tactics to mitigate illicit recopying, sometimes turning to

more drastic remedies, as when Beethoven complained to the Artaria house of Vienna that a pirated version of his op. 29 Sextet contained many errors, asked the owner to turn over the 50 pirated copies for correction, and then slashed giant “X’s” across the pirated copy pages.

Happy birthday Beethoven!

SOPA Markup — The House Judiciary Committee continues the process of considering amendments to the Stop Online Piracy Act today. Yesterday’s session lasted throughout the day; twelve amendments, mostly from SOPA opponents Issa, Lofgren, and Polis, failed, and four amendments passed — including one that would require a rightsholder to pay attorney’s fees and costs to a defendant if the rightsholder “knowingly misrepresented” that a site was an Internet site dedicated to the theft of US property.

SOPA Fixes Isolate Opponents, Especially Google — “Implicit in the opponents’ opposition approach is an elitist conceit that only their companies innovate in a way that matters or benefits users, not any other American inventors or creators throughout the economy hurt by piracy, and also that no one else but them, really cares about the Internet, innovation, freedom of speech, or due process.”

Orphan Works and Fair Use in a Digital Age — Video of a panel discussion held this past week featuring Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang, Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, and American Society of Media Photographers General Counsel Victor Perlman.

Googlenocchio? What a Tangled Web They Weave — Indie filmmaker Ellen Seidler has been a stalwart reporter on the mechanics of commercial online piracy. Here she looks at the difference between what Google says it’s doing about online piracy, and what it’s actually doing: working hard, or hardly working?

Internet Should be Free, But Not Lawless — Op-ed by Colin Hanna. There’s a fundamental distinction between freedom and lawlessness. The former is rule by law, the latter is rule by the strongest over the weak.

How “Digital Parasites” Have Hurt Songwriters and What Songwriters Can Do To Fight Back — ASCAP’s Erik Philbrook speaks with author Rob Levine about his recent book Free Ride. They briefly discuss Creative Commons licenses, leading to the best quote of the interview: “A Creative Commons deal is like one of those old record deals. Like when you sign away your rights in exchange for a Cadillac. But with this deal, you don’t get a car.”

OPEN Act Falls Short for Artists and Creators — Sandra Aistars summarizes the key points on why Rep. Issa’s alternative rogue sites bill would do little for creators and the public.


  1. What are you going to buy me? []

Senator Wyden, a vocal opponent of the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, has criticized the bills by saying that online piracy “is not an issue where we should use a bunker-buster bomb when a laser beam would do.”

But does the OPEN Act, draft language of which was unveiled last week by Wyden and other opponents of the existing bills, resemble the metaphorical laser beam, or is it more like a World War I dreadnought — expensive, unwieldy, and not very suited to today’s world?1

Though I’m encouraged that opponents of the existing bills recognize the harm that online commercial piracy causes creators, I think the OPEN Act resembles too much the latter. The definitions are far too narrow — it’s difficult to conceive of any site, even the most egregiously infringing site — that would fall within their scope. Its shift to the International Trade Commission would require a questionable expansion of federal bureaucracy. The resources required to bring a case in front of the ITC would place the bill’s remedies out of the hands of all but the largest copyright holders. All of this for what would amount to little more than a cease and desist letter to ad and payment service providers.

Some more detailed thoughts and questions about the bill:

Comparison to SOPA and PROTECT IP

SOPA and PROTECT IP provide for both actions by the Attorney General and actions by copyright holders, the OPEN Act provides only for actions by copyright holders. One of the major differences between the bills is venue: while SOPA and PROTECT IP actions would take place in federal courts, the OPEN Act specifically provides for such actions to occur in the International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial, independent federal agency that specializes in unfair trade practices.

Like the private rights of action in SOPA and PROTECT IP, the right of action in the OPEN Act is limited to remedies against advertising providers and payment service providers.

I find some of the support of this change of venue interesting. For example, the EFF writes:

The International Trade Commission (ITC), an independent agency, would be tasked with investigating complaints from content owners. The ITC’s process, one which is currently used in the patent context, is transparent, quick, and effective. Both parties would have the opportunity to participate and the record would be public. The process would include many important due process protections, such as effective notice to the site of the complaint and ensuing investigation as well as the ability to challenge any final permanent injunction in a federal court.

This is interesting because there is little difference in theory between this and a federal court. Court proceedings are transparent and effective and provide due process protections. These kinds of statements are overly simplistic, since they gloss over the differences in practice between the ITC and a federal court proceeding.

I have yet to dive into the differences, but it strikes me as premature to declare an action through the ITC as inherently better or more fair than a court action. Federal courts are governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, administrative agencies have different procedural rules. Both venues have different rules of evidence. Both have different standards for keeping confidential business information accessible by the public.

And is it true that an action through the ITC would be quicker and cheaper than a court action?  According to one article, the average cost of an action through trial at the ITC is $2-3.75 million and takes 15-18 months, while the verge cost of a patent lawsuit through trial in federal court is $3-5 million and takes 2-3 years. It would seem that the ITC is quicker and cheaper, but as the article points out, 95% of patent lawsuits settle or are disposed before reaching trial, bringing the cost and time involved down significantly. Compare that to the ITC, where 40-50% of cases reach trial.


Some critics of SOPA warned that the bill would damage DMCA safe harbors2  — which immunize service providers engaged in certain, specific functions from liability for copyright infringement if they adhere to the provisions of the DMCA.

The OPEN Act looks to address this criticism. It states that a site is not subject to action under the bill if it “engages in an activity that would not make the operator liable for monetary relief for infringing the copyright under section 512 of title 17, United States Code.” This is a roundabout way of saying that if a site qualifies for one of the four DMCA safe harbors cannot be held liable in the ITC.

But what does that mean? The provisions for DMCA safe harbors are complex, and their interpretation has been subject of many court cases since their introduction in 1998. Appeals  dealing primarily with the meaning of 17 USC § 512(c)(1)(A)(ii) — so-called “red flag” knowledge — are currently pending in the Second and Ninth Circuits, for example, and may impact how sites like YouTube must operate in order to remain protected under the safe harbor.

The ITC (as far as I can tell)3  is bound to follow precedent from the Supreme Court — which hasn’t weighed in on the language of § 512 — and the Federal Circuit — which hasn’t either. The ITC would approach the DMCA from a blank slate. Far from being predictable, this means that guessing how the ITC interprets the DMCA is pure speculation.

But this point may be moot, as the OPEN Act also excludes action against sites that have “a practice of expeditiously removing, or disabling access to, material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity after notification by the owner of the copyright or trademark alleged to be infringed or its authorized representative.”

This is like a dystopian version of the DMCA safe harbors. A site can be protected under the OPEN Act even if it directly infringes and directly profits off infringement, so long as it “expeditiously” removes material when it is notified. There are also none of the protections of the DMCA — no counter-notification requirement, no provisions for misrepresenting the contents of a notification.

How Different are the Definitions?

The OPEN Act defines an “Internet site dedicated to infringing activity” as one that “has only limited purpose or use other than engaging in infringing activity and whose owner or operator primarily uses the site to willfully engage in infringing activity.”

Compare this to the definition of an “Internet site dedicated to theft of U.S. property” in SOPA, which would include a site that “is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates” copyright infringement; or a site where the operator “is taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the . . . site to carry out acts that constitute” copyright infringement, or “operates the . . . site with the object of promoting, or has promoted, its use to carry out acts that constitute” copyright infringement “as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.”

SOPA’s definitions have been criticized as being too vague and broad.4 But are the two definitions, though worded differently, really that different?

I wrote earlier how SOPA’s definitions don’t create new liability, only new remedies. Websites that are engaged in the actions described in SOPA would largely be liable for copyright infringment under existing law. SOPA’s definitions explicitly incorporate these principles. The Open Act’s definitions don’t make reference to these principles — but that doesn’t mean they no longer exist.

Here’s one example: under the OPEN Act, action can be brought against a site where the operator “uses the site to willfully engage in infringing activity.” Willful infringement includes both direct and indirect infringement — vicarious and contributory infringement.5 Contributory infringement generally requires that someone has knowledge of direct infringement and materially contributes to the infringement.6 “Knowledge” can mean actual knowledge, but it can also mean willful blindness.7

The Supreme Court has defined “willful blindness” as taking “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing.”8 In other words, a site operator who “uses the site to willfully engage in infringing activity” can include, by definition, a site operator who is “taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the . . . site to carry out acts that constitute” copyright infringement.”

Speculation? Consider this: less than two weeks ago, the ITC reversed an ALJ’s finding that a manufacturer had induced patent infringement based on the Supreme Court’s formulation of willful blindness.9

Another example of where a site operator can willfully engage in infringing activity is by inducing copyright infringement. DMCA safe harbors don’t protect such service providers.10 Inducement, as described by the Supreme Court in MGM v. Grokster, is promoting the use of a product or service to infringe, “as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.”

Again, this means that the difference in definitions between the two bills is one of wording: SOPA explicitly incorporates existing principles of liability, the OPEN Act incorporates existing principles implicitly.

More US Control over the Internet?

The following portion of the OPEN Act jumped out at me:

(5) LIMITATION ON INVESTIGATIONS OF DOMAIN NAMES; CONSENT TO JURISDICTION. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, the Commission may not initiate an investigation under paragraph (1) with respect to a domain name if the operator of the Internet site associated with the domain name

(A) provides in a legal notice on the site accurate information consisting of

(i) the name of an individual authorized to receive process on behalf of the site;

(ii) an address at which process may be served;

(iii) a telephone number at which the individual described in clause (i) may be contacted; and

(iv) a statement that the operator of the site

(I) consents to the jurisdiction and venue of the United States district courts with respect to a violation under section 506 of title 17, United States Code, a criminal offense under section 1204 of title 17, United States Code, for a violation of section 1201 of such title, or a violation of section 2320 of title 18 of such Code; and

(II) will accept service of process from the Attorney General with respect to those violations and the offense set forth in subclause (I); and

(B) upon the filing of any civil action in the appropriate United States district court

(i) for infringement of copyright under section 501 of title 17, United States Code,

(ii) under section 1203 of title 17, United States Code, for a violation of section 1201 of such title, or

(iii) under section 32(1) of the Lanham Act, accepts service and waives, in a timely manner, any objections to jurisdiction as set forth in the statement described in subparagraph (A)(iv).

In short, this portion says that an action can’t be brought against a foreign website if the website owner consents to being sued in the US for copyright infringement. Foreign websites who don’t consent can be sued in the ITC, those who do can be sued in a US court. That means, if the bill passes, a US copyright owner would have the ability to bring legal action against every website in the world.

While I agree that the US and its residents should have some recourse against sites tht engage in US commerce and infringe against US rights, this part of the OPEN Act seems to go overboard in that regard.

Is the OPEN Act Constitutional?

Administrative agencies like the ITC exercise a mix of government functions — executive, legislative, and judicial — but (most) nominally reside in the executive branch. Very few people seriously argue that agencies in general are unconstitutional, but whenever an agency is granted new powers, it’s important to make sure that such a grant is constitutional.

“Separation of powers” and “checks and balances” should be familiar concepts to anyone in the US. Article III of the Constitution establishes an independent judiciary, providing that any judge is appointed for life, keeping judges free from undue influence by the executive or legislative branches.

But the Supreme Court has recognized three exceptions to this rule, where Congress can delegate judicial functions to agencies and courts that don’t provide for life tenure or otherwise aren’t a part of an independent judiciary. Congress can create non-Article III courts to govern U.S. territories, to administer courts-martial, and to adjudicate “public rights.”11

As is often the case, the Court didn’t nail down a precise definition of “public rights.” It merely noted:

The distinction between public rights and private rights has not been definitively explained in our precedents. Nor is it necessary to do so in the present cases, for it suffices to observe that a matter of public rights must at a minimum arise “between the government and others.” In contrast, “the liability of one individual to another under the law as defined,” is a matter of private rights. Our precedents clearly establish that only controversies in the former category may be removed from Art. III courts and delegated to legislative courts or administrative agencies for their determination. Private-rights disputes, on the other hand, lie at the core of the historically recognized judicial power.

A much earlier Court provided some examples of cases involving “public rights”:

Familiar illustrations of administrative agencies created for the determination of such matters are found in connection with the exercise of the congressional power as to interstate and foreign commerce, taxation, immigration, the public lands, public health, the facilities of the post office, pensions and payments to veterans.12

Administrative law judges in the ITC, who would preside over cases arising from this bill, are not Article III judges. The agency doesn’t preside over a U.S. territory or hear cases involving military regulations, so the question is whether cases under OPA involve “public rights.”

The Federal Circuit has heard a constitutional challenge to the ITC involving this question. It upheld the ITC’s authority to adjudicate international patent disputes, saying, “§ 337 and its predecessor provisions represent a valid delegation of this broad Congressional power [the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations] for the public purpose of providing an adequate remedy for domestic industries against unfair practices beginning abroad and culminating in importation.”13

Assuming the Federal Circuit’s reasoning is correct, I still wonder whether it extends to the new powers the ITC would have. For starters, a website engaging in digital piracy is quite different from a manufacturer importing infringing goods into the US. Online infringement involves unauthorized exercise of the exclusive rights of copyright, not commerce — and copyright has historically been adjudicated in Article III courts, not specialized legislative courts.

In addition, there’s less of a case to be made for copyright as involving “public rights” as there is for patent. A patent grant is a quid pro quo with the public: an inventor is given an exclusive monopoly on an invention in exchange for disclosing to the public the methods of the patent. Copyright includes no such quid pro quo — protection is automatically vested upon creation of a work.14

Even if constitutional, at the very least, this expansion of agency powers should raise concerns, especially considering the expense that would be involved. Congress should have a little more to go on than speculation about the effectiveness of an agency approach before devoting considerable time and resources to it.


  1. Wyden’s original metaphor makes little sense to me. On the one hand, “bunker-buster” bombs are used against targets that conventional weapons can’t take out and are designed for high accuracy and minimal collateral damage — precisely the type of remedies creators need online. Laser beams, on the other hand, are currently a long way from being useful as weapons. []
  2. For example, David Sohn of the Center for Democracy & Technology has said, “This is a bill that would eviscerate the predictable legal environment created by the DMCA”; Markham Erickson of NetCoalition has said, “Both bills gut the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)”; and Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has said SOPA “would also threaten to effectively eliminate the DMCA safe harbors.” []
  3. Generally, courts in common law systems are bound by stare decisis to follow precedent of all courts above them. Since ITC decisions are appealable to the Federal Circuit, I assume the ITC is bound by Federal Circuit decisions, though I haven’t been able to confirm this. []
  4. For example, Ryan Radia of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has said, “The scope of websites encompassed by these provisions appears to be potentially vast”; Parker Higgins of the EFF has said, “the broad definitions and vague language in the bill could place dangerous tools into the hands of IP rightsholders”; Larry Downes of TechFreedom has labelled the definitons as “a new category broadly defined by the bill.” []
  5. See, for example, Sega Enterprises v. Maphia, 948 F.Supp. 923, 936 (ND Cali 1996), finding willful infringement for contributory copyright infringement. []
  6. Gershwin Publishing v. Columbia Artists Management, 443 F.2d 1159, 1162 (2nd Cir. 1971). []
  7. See In re Aimster Copyright Litigation, 334 F.3d 643, 650 (7th Cir. 2003), “Willful blindness is knowledge, in copyright law… as it is in the law generally.” []
  8. Global-Tech Appliances v. SEB, 131 S.Ct. 2060, 2070 (2011). Coincidentally, Global-Tech was an appeal from a Federal Circuit decision. []
  9. Commission opinion, In the Matter of Certain Ink Jet Cartridges, No. 337-TA-723, pp. 15-16 (ITC, Dec. 1, 2011). []
  10. See Columbia Pictures v. Fung, 2:06-cv-05578-SVW-JC (CD Cali Dec. 21, 2009) “inducement liability and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act safe harbors are inherently contradictory. Inducement liability is based on active bad faith conduct aimed at promoting infringement; the statutory safe harbors are based on passive good faith conduct aimed at operating a legitimate internet business”; Arista v. Usenet, 663 F.Supp.2d 124, 142 (SDNY 2009), “if Defendants … encouraged or fostered such infringement, they would be ineligible for the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions.” []
  11. Northern Pipeline v. Marathon Pipe Line, 458 US 50, 64-67 (1982). []
  12. Crowell v. Benson, 285 US 22, 51 (1932). []
  13. AKZO NV v. US International Trade Commission, 808 F.2d 1471, 1488 (Fed. Cir. 1986). []
  14. See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 US 186, 214-17 (2003). []

OPEN Act (OPA) draft language released — The big news in the US this week was the public release of draft legislation for an alternative to SOPA and PROTECT IP. Thoughts? I’ll have a post on the language next week, most likely.

The Mystery Man Behind Megaupload Piracy Fight — As I understand it, Megaupload would not be covered by OPA’s provisions. Kim Schmitz’s marble bathtubs and yachts are safe.

PIPA/SOPA: Responding to Critics and Finding a Path Forward — Daniel Castro of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation addresses criticisms of rogue sites legislation, paying special attention to technological criticisms of the site blocking provisions of those bills. Highly recommended.

What I Know… Explaining Piracy’s Profit Pyramid — Independent filmmaker Ellen Seidler provides this illustrated guide to how cyberlockers and linking sites profit off misappropriating the work of others. “The only way today’s crop of cyberlockers can be forced to institute similar content ID systems is if their current business model becomes unsustainable.  For that to happen, like Youtube,  they too will need to face the threat of litigation and/or the long arm of the law.   At this point, that puts the ball squarely back in the lap of Congress.”

Internet Piracy: Will SOPA Change the Web as We Know it? — Excellent podcast from KCRW focused on SOPA, with guests from both sides of the debate.

Get To Know a New York City Street Musician: Union Square Edition — Interesting interviews with several street musicians about what it’s like to perform in public spaces.

Workspace: Christine Boylan — I love reading about individuals describing their creative process. Here, screenwriter John August interviews Christine Boylan, a writer and television producer who has worked on Leverage and currently co-produces Castle.

How An All-Christmas-Music Format Doubles Radio Ratings — I did not know this, but apparently the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time format that many radio stations have already switched to is ratings gold.

Last week I began writing about the unexplored history surrounding copyright law and the First Amendment. To sum up: in the past four decades, there has been a lot of scholarship concerning a potential conflict between the Copyright Clause of the US Constitution and the free speech and press protections of the First Amendment. Since then, courts have also dealt with the interplay of the two — most notably the Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

But before than — nothing. Nearly two whole centuries passed from when the Copyright Clause and First Amendment became the law of the land until Melville Nimmer wrote Does Copyright Abridge the First Amendment Guarantees of Free Speech and Press? in 1970.

History gives us very little reason why this is. Discussion and debates surrounding First Amendment’s adoption are “void of any reference to its relationship with provisions of the original Constitution such as the Copyright Clause.”1

As a result, most of the academic attention on the subject has relied on things other than history to examine the perceived conflict. Courts too — Eldred devoted only two sentences to the history of the two clauses: “The Copyright Clause and First Amendment were adopted close in time. This proximity indicates that, in the Framers’ view, copyright’s limited monopolies are compatible with free speech principles.”

I think history can shed some light on this “unbroken practice” of copyright and free speech coexisting.2 Last time, I noted that one of the reasons that may explain why little was said on the subject for nearly two centuries was that a copyright was generally conceived of as a property right, and the liberty of the press did not extend to invasions of property rights.

Is Copyright Law Unconstitutional?

Today, I want to point out a specific claim that is not supported by history.

In a recent post, Stephan Kinsella puts out a version of the claim:

Clearly copyright is form of censorship. Clearly the First Amendment prohibits federal censorship laws. So: the First Amendment later, and thus implicitly repealed the copyright clause. Or at least the copyright act–the way it’s implemented to permit books to be banned and movies burned.

The more I think about this, the more I think it’s correct. There is a tension between copyright’s censorship, and the free speech and free press protections in the First Amendment (as there is a “tension” between antitrust and IP law). But since the free speech provisions came later, in case of conflict, they prevail. Copyright has to go. It is unconstitutional.

Kinsella is not the first to say this. For example, this is from a 1986 law review article: “Arguably, then, the [Copyright] Act is unconstitutional, since the free speech guarantee is an amendment which supersedes prior inconsistent constitutional text.”3

Other free speech critics of copyright law, while not adopting the view that the First Amendment rendered the Copyright Clause unconstitutional, use the timing of the two provisions to raise uncertainty in the arena.4 In general, however, speculation concerning the constitutional firmity of Congress’s copyright power is a minority view.5

Respected constitutional scholar William W. Van Alstyne points out that “certainly nothing on [the First Amendment’s] face suggests that it in any respect ‘amends’ (that is, displaces) [the Copyright Clause].”6 Later amendments don’t repeal Constitutional provisions unless the repeal is explicit (as with the Twenty-First Amendment) or self-evident (as with the Seventeenth Amendment).7

Freedom of the Press and Copyright Before the Constitution

But there’s an even more compelling reason why the subsequent adoption of the First Amendment wouldn’t have or wasn’t intended to impact Congress’s copyright authority at the time.

Twelve of the original thirteen US states (Delaware was the lone exception) adopted copyright acts between 1783 and 1786 — before the current Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.

Of those twelve colonies, five of them provided for the freedom of the press in either their state constitutions or separate bills of rights before passing their own copyright laws: Virginia,8 Pennsylvania,9 Georgia,10 South Carolina,11 and Massachusetts.12

Two of the colonies did not enact freedom of the press clauses until after passing their own copyright acts13 while the remaining five did not include “bill of rights” style provisions in their constitutions prior to the ratification of the US Constitution.14

So by the time delegates arrived to draft the US Constitution, over one third of the states had enacted copyright legislation after providing for freedom of the press. This lends solid support to the idea that early US copyright law was perceived as being wholly consistent with the guarantee of a free press.


  1. Joseph P. Bauer, Copyright and the First Amendment: Comrades, Combatants, or Uneasy Allies? 67 Washington and Lee Law Review 831, 839 n.28 (2010). []
  2. To be clear: right now I’m only seeking to describe the historical relationship between copyright and free speech, not make any arguments about how courts and policy makers should treat the relationship today. I think history can inform the approach to that relationship, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m arguing that “this is how it was, so this is how it should always be.” []
  3. David E. Shipley, Conflicts Between Copyright and the First Amendment After Harper & Row, Publishers v. Nation Enterprises, 1986 BYU Law Review 983, 985 (1986). []
  4. See, for example, Joseph P. Bauer, Copyright and the First Amendment: Comrades, Combatants, or Uneasy Allies? 67 Washington and Lee Law Review 831, 839 (2010). []
  5. “The view of the First Amendment entirely displacing the earlier text is universally rejected, I think properly, as to copyright.” C. Edwin Baker, First Amendment Limits on Copyright, 55 Vanderbilt Law Review 891, 893 (2002). []
  6. Reconciling What the First Amendment Forbids With What the Copyright Clause Permits: A Summary Explanation and Review, 66 Law and Contemporary Problems 225, 226 (2003). []
  7. See Joseph Blocher, Amending the Exceptions Clause, 92 Minnesota Law Review 971, 980-82 (2008). []
  8. “XII That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776 (Virginia Copyright Act, October 1, 1785). []
  9. “XII. That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments; therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.” Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights, September 28, 1776 (Pennsylvania Copyright Act, March 15, 1784). []
  10. “Article LXI. Freedom of the press and trial by jury to remain inviolate forever.” Georgia ConstitutionFebruary 1777 (Georgia Copyright Act, February 3, 1786). []
  11. “XLIII. That the liberty of the press be inviolably preserved.” Constitution of South Carolina, March 19, 1778 (South Carolina Copyright Act, March 26, 1784). []
  12. “Article XVI. The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth.” Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, October 25, 1780 (Massachusetts Copyright Act, March 17, 1783). []
  13. New Hampshire — “Article 22. The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: It ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.” New Hampshire Constitution, June 2, 1784 (New Hampshire Copyright Act, November 7, 1783); and North Carolina —  “16. That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing and publishing their sentiments; that freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and ought not to be violated.” North Carolina Ratifying Convention, Declaration of Rights and Other Amendments, August 1, 1788 (North Carolina Copyright Act, November 19, 1785). []
  14. Connecticut, which passed the first colonial copyright act, operated under the 1662 Charter of the Colony of Connecticut until 1818. Rhode Island similarly operated under its 1663 Royal Charter until it adopted a constitution in 1842. Maryland, New Jersey, and New York did not expressly mention freedom of the press in their original constitutions. []

Last week I ran a post collecting a number of pieces that quoted John Philips Sousa and Jack Valenti.

The argument in many of the sources (though not all) goes something like this: The content industry, the entertainment industry, the copyright industries — and by extension the artists, authors, and creators who make their living producing expressive works — fail to see the opportunities presented by new technologies. The history supposedly shows a consistent line of opposition, and the implication is that any current attempts to ensure that the exclusive rights of copyright are accounted for as technology progresses are merely attempts to use law to prop up outdated business models instead of adapting.

And, it seems, a 100 year old quote from a march composer and a 30 year old quote from the president of a film trade association are sufficient proof for this argument.

I’m always skeptical of such broad claims. If you look at history, you’ll find that this story is little more than an apologue, used to add historical weight to influence present day debates. History is useful to the present — but if it is to play a role in debates over copyright law, a more objective history is needed.

Piano rolls and Gramophones

Toward the end of the 19th century, two innovations brought music to the masses: self-playing instruments (primarily player pianos and organs) and recorded music. Prior to this, you could only hear someone else’s song when it was performed by you or someone else.

Most songwriters and composers recognized the opportunities these innovations provided: the audience for their music now included everyone, not just those who had learned to play an instrument. However, at the time, copyright law did not address whether a reproduction of a work onto a mechanical device like a player piano or phonograph was within a composer’s exclusive rights.

In England, in 1899, a committee of the House of Lords held hearings on updating the copyright law of that country. Edwin Ashdown, of the Music Publishers Association, summed up what the issue that would prove to be at the heart of every dispute involving new technology over the next century:

We do not wish to prohibit this thing utterly; altogether we wish the sellers to pay a royalty on every copy they sell. … It is only fair to the owner of the copyright… and I believe these people are sufficiently honourable to pay a royalty if it is imposed, but they want the question settled. If they can do without paying a royalty they prefer it.1

Indeed, there was no question that the manufacturers of these devices wanted songs that could be played on them: the value of the “hardware” was dependent on the availability of the “software.” But like any business, or anyone for that matter, given a choice between paying for something and not paying for something, they much prefer the latter. The opposition from publishers and composers was not based on fear of innovation.

As Ashdown said earlier in the hearings, “It is not the instrument, it is the things you buy after you have got the instrument that we wish to provide against.”

The question of whether by law composers had exclusive rights over mechanical reproduction was unsettled in the US as well. But not every manufacturer took that as an opportunity to keep from compensating the composers that made their devices so valuable to the public. By the turn of the century, the Æolian Company, which manufactured player organs, was regularly signing licensing deals with music publishers who were happy to embrace the new technologies.2

A 1908 Supreme Court decision placed mechanical reproductions outside copyright law.3 Congress responded in 1909 by amending the Copyright Act to include mechanical reproductions. Did this kill recorded music? Just the opposite: jazz, blues, rock, country, hip-hop — the 20th century has been a phenomenal one for music, all easily accessible by any member of the public.


The invention of radio developed through the late 19th century and early 20th century, and by 1920, the first radio stations were regularlly broadcasting in the US.4

Music was a big part of radio from the start. E.C. Mills, chairman of the Music Publishers Protective Association and later member of ASCAP, noted music’s role in the industry:

You can broadcast but one thing—sound. Would it be possible to broadcast the sound of the steam hammers working on an iron building, or the traffic in the streets, and make it entertaining to the people? The two sounds that are interesting in the popular sense— and all the sound that comes over the radio is not interesting; the static holloas in my ears every now and then—the two sounds that can be broadcast are the spoken word in the interesting lecture, information, news, crop reports, market reports, etc., and the melody and harmony of music. Without music broadcasting in its popular phases could not exist.5

The introduction of radio broadcasting coincided with a drop in recorded music sales.6 And, as when phonographs were first introduced, copyright law was unsettled as to whether a copyright owner had control over the broadcast of his music.

But that’s not to say musicians and songwriters opposed radio. Mills, testifying in front of Congress, said flat out:

I am a radio fan; I don’t know but what it is going to bring a divorce into my family. We think that radio is the greatest contribution that science has ever made to man, that it will bring about a universal language, that it will make wars impossible, that it will make the fanner happy, and that in general it will render the greatest service to human kind of anything that has ever been conceived. That is what we think about the radio.

In a 1922 article for Popular Radio magazine, Mills repeated these sentiments:

Radio has developed in such an amazing and spectacular manner that it promises to become the greatest factor the world has ever known for the dissemination of information and education of the whole people. The position of musical copyright proprietors, including authors, composers and publishers, is now and will be in the future to lend their support to any cause or purpose which promises so much for mankind’s benefit, and they therefore do not oppose radio, nor would they handicap or hamper its logical development.7

Others who represented musicians were even more embracing of the new medium. M.E. Tompkins, of the Music Publishers Association, said:

Our Committee has been carefully investigating the broadcasting of copyrighted music since last November. In our report, just adopted by the Association, we point out that music publishers are vitally interested in radio broadcasting as a great future user of music and that our rights in the use of our copyrighted music in public performances must be protected. However, we appreciate the fact that radio broadcasting is stillin a chaotic and experimental state and that, while ultimately it will have to be placed on a commercial basis if it is to develop its potentialities, nevertheless the commercial side of the broadcasting problem has not yet been solved.

In view of these facts and also because we desire to co-operate in developing the music possibilities of radio, we believe that we should allow the use of our copyrighted musical compositions for broadcasting without charge for the present, and without prejudice in our rights.8

Recording labels, still new to the world, were also generally welcoming of the opportunities radio provided their artists. While some were reluctant to let their performers broadcast, primarily because of concerns over the quality of the sound, others were eager.

An article in The Wireless Age from 1923 quotes H. A. Yerkes, assistant general manager of Columbia Graphophone Company, as saying:

We have no set policy directed against radio. In fact, we have urged that our exclusive artists sing for the radio whenever possible. We have even made arrangements for them to do so in certain cases. You can take the Columbia catalogue and go through it and you will find that nearly all the big names in it have been heard by radio.

The article notes, “H. B. Schaad, Secretary of the Aeolian Company made it plain that no unfavorable influence upon the Aeolian business has been noted and that in consequence, cooperation with broadcasters has been determined upon as the present policy of the company. Many prominent artists who have made Vocalion records or Duo-Art reproducing piano rolls have been heard on the air not only through their records and rolls, but personally.”

Otto Heinemann, president of the General Phonograph Corporation, which ran Okeh Records, said:

Radio has a very beneficial effect on the sale of phonograph records.

People who hear the latest hits by radio of course want to hear them again, and they do not want to have to wait until they are sent out again by a broadcasting station. They want to be able to play them at will. And so they go out and buy the records of those hits, and especially the records made by the artists who have played those hits by radio.

That is why we have been making all possible arrangements to have our artists broadcast the latest song and dance hits by radio. We know that it helps the sale of records. There is no doubt about it at all.

The broadcasting stations have been most generous in cooperating with us, welcoming our artists, and even in many cases announcing that they are Okeh artists. This is very beneficial indeed. I think radio is now a very important factor in the sale of new records.

Finally, A.H. Curry, general manager of Thomas A. Edison, Inc., said:

While no definite campaign has been undertaken, the company has in a few instances aided its artists to get on the air through radio. It appreciates the enormous publicity value to be obtained in this way, and it has called the attention of its performers to the advantages of radio broadcasting.

Like the phonograph, what conflict arose due to the introduction of radio wasn’t from fear or failure to recognize its opportunities. It was due to the simple fact that copyright owners have exclusive rights, and those rights should continue to be recognized no matter what technological advances come along, especially if the new industry is benefitting and profitting off the work of others.

E.C. Mill’s colleague Gene Buck, then president of ASCAP, summed up the position of composers this way:

I want to put into this meeting the sense that every member of this organization and myself have a deep respect and a great regard for radio. We have because we always want to go on record and say it is one of the greatest blessings put into the homes of this country. But, gentlemen, the men who take our material and broadcast it and derive a profit from broadcasting must pay the composer, because if they do not you are going to destroy the initiative.9

The radio industry resisted any efforts to provide for compensating composers, however. In 1924, the US Senate held hearings on a proposed amendment to exempt radio from having to license public performance rights for the music they played. The hearings were replete with dire predictions that having to pay composers would put an end to the radio industry.

One contemporary magazine article noted, “Radio broadcast flashed conspicuously in the national limelight this week. Not less than 15,000,000 persons are taking an active interest in connection with rapid developments taking place regarding broadcasting in relation to ‘freedom of the air.'” The same magazine included a petition that promised “Every effort is being made through the National Association of Broadcasters to keep the air free and untrammeled by trust control and commercialism.”10

Songwriter and ASCAP founder Victor Herbert saw through these claims. During the Senate hearings, he remarked:

A few years ago the phonograph companies came here with practically the same claim, that we were going to ruin them, just as the radio people have come to-day. We must have protection. Instead of taking away from what we have now and what the Constitution of the United States gives us, you should give us more, because that stimulates creation. You protect everything else. You protect trade; you protect the farmers; you try to protect everybody.

The bill failed to pass. A series of court cases in the mid 1920s established that a radio broadcast of music was a public performance, thus within the composer or publisher’s exclusive rights.11

Did the broadcasters’ claims that compensating songwriters would ruin them come true? Not at all. In 1926, it’s estimated that only 1 in 5 households had radio; in less than 10 years, radio had reached 2 out of every 3 households.12 Even today, with many competing media, 93% of the US population (12 years old and up) listens to terrestrial radio at least once a week, with an average listening time of over 15 hours a week.13


I’m including television here even though its introduction wasn’t accompanied by the same types of copyright disputes as the phonograph or radio. Yet it certainly was a disruptive technology — television took audiences away from movie theaters.14 It should be a perfect place to find evidence of the content/entertainment/copyright industry’s opposition to new technology.

In 1928, Popular Mechanics ran an article called What Television Offers You, where it interviewed a number of those involved in the nascent industry, including Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor of the radio tube. The author of the article also spoke to several in the entertainment industry about their thoughts on the new technlogy. Harry M. Warner, president of Warner Brothers Pictures, had this to say:

Dr. De Forest is absolutely correct in his statement that theater owners have nothing to fear from television. Television will no doubt be an advancement in transmitting photography, but to affect an industry which supplies entertainment is out of the question. On the contrary, should this invention be successful, it will be the greatest help to places of entertainment by stimulating interest directly in the home.

Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, shared Warner’s opinions:

In the twenty-two years I have devoted to motion pictures I have never seen the time when science and invention damaged the industry. On the other hand, I have seen the business elevated to an art largely through the help of inventive genius. Therefore, whether television and radio movies are years away or just around the corner, I predict that, when they do come, they will prove a blessing and not a curse, and I sincerely urge those who may be panicky to remember that progress cannot possibly harm them. The very thought that these new wonders may at some time be perfected gives me a thrill of pride and greater confidence in the moving-picture industry.

Companies like Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures, which are still in the business of making movies, wouldn’t have survived nearly a century that was witness to some of the most rapid technological advancement if they failed to appreciate the opportunities of innovation.

Part 2 will look at Cable TV, the VCR, and beyond.


  1. Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Copyright Bill, pg. 50 (1899). []
  2. Hearings before the Committees on patents of the Senate and House of representatives on pending bills to amend and consolidate the acts respecting copyright, pg. 221 (1908). []
  3. White-Smith Music Publishing v. Apollo, 209 US 1. []
  4. Wikipedia, History of Radio. []
  5. US Senate Patents Committee. Hearings to amend the Copyright Act, pg 73 (1923). []
  6. Stan J. Liebowitz, The Elusive Symbiosis: The Impact of Radio on the Record Industry, 1 Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues 93 (2004). []
  7. E.C. Mills, A Public Performance for Profit? Popular Radio, pg 208 (May 1922). []
  8. “Standard” Works are Free, Wireless Age, pg. 29 (June 1923). []
  9. Id. Hearings pg. 60. []
  10. Id. Hearings pg. 94. []
  11. See The Story of John and Jack. []
  12. Id. Liebowitz at 107. []
  13. Arbitron, Radio Today 2010. []
  14. Id. Liebowitz pp. 99-103. []

2011 ABA Journal Blawg 100 — I am deeply honored to learn that this site has been selected as one of the top 100 law blogs of the year by the ABA Journal. From the description:

“Terrence Hart’s Copyhype has rapidly established itself as one of the best copyright blogs on the Web,” writes Ben Sheffner, author of the Copyrights & Campaigns blog, which is on hiatus. The site’s clean and spare design echoes the fine print of a contract, and this is fine print you’d actually enjoy reading. Its column Friday’s Endnotes links and summarizes the week’s most relevant copyright news.

You can also vote for your favorite blogs out of the top 100 until December 30th. If you enjoy this site, I hope you cast your vote — Copyhype is in the “IP Law” category.

Copyright Digitization and Public Access Project Blog — The US Copyright Office this week started a blog for its digitization project, “a long term effort to convert non-digital records of copyright ownership and transfers and assignment of rights and to make them widely available online via the web.” The first post lays out some of the challenges of bringing over a century’s worth (nearly 70 million) of copyright documents online.

Court OKs Private Seizure of Domain Names Which Allegedly Sold Counterfeit Goods–Chanel, Inc. v. Does — Eric Goldman reports on a federal court’s recent grant of a preliminary injunction against 200 domain names alleged to be engaged in the sale of counterfeit Chanel goods. The twist: the court order mimics the type of relief that parts of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act would have provided for. Notably, the court ordered third parties to redirect the domain names and de-index or remove the sites from search results.

ACI Survey Finds Consumers Support More Protection against Pirated Goods and Content — Counterfeit Goods Cited as Reducing Jobs; Harming the Economy — According to the recent survey, “82% of consumers agreed (including 58% that strongly agreed) that protecting copyrights, trademarks and patents of artists, authors, manufacturers and inventors encourages innovation and creativity, while only 10% disagreed (either somewhat or strongly) with that statement.

British Library newspaper archive puts 300 years of history online — Four million pages from 200 local and regional newspapers in the London area, spanning back to 1700 are now digitized and accessible online. The massive project is expected to be completed in 2020, with over 650 million articles eventually available. Search is free, though there are fees for accessing the actual images.

Defending SOPA — Rep. Lamar Smith, sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, rebuts criticisms of the bill. “The bill defines rogue sites as websites that are dedicated to the facilitation of the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit or pirated goods. Websites like Facebook and YouTube that host user content are not ‘dedicated to’ illegal activity and they certainly do not make a business out of ‘facilitating’ the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit or pirated goods. But if a user posts illegal content on a website like Facebook or YouTube, current law allows rights holders to notify the website to remove the illegal content.”

The End of Free: Web 2.0 Will Squeeze Punters Rotton — Andrew Orlowski notes several good reasons why the Internet free-for-all won’t last forever. “When half a billion people spend more time on Facebook than they do watching TV, Facebook’s current revenue strategy looks miserly and foolish – it makes no sense to leave so much consumer surplus on the table. Businesses are not charities, remember, and nor are their investors.”

Alternative online piracy bill floated — Opponents of SOPA have recently released a draft proposal for alternate rogue sites legislation. The draft suggests remedies similar to SOPA — sans site blocking — but with cases initiated in the International Trade Commission, a US independent agency. More on this when draft legislative language is released.

Accessories after the fact — Though it believes it could use some tweaking, the Economist thinks SOPA is worth fixing. “No matter what the ‘content-should-be-free crowd says, copyright theft robs artists and businesses of their livelihoods.”