Cross-posted on the Law Theories blog.

As a follow-up to my last post about why copyright is a right and fair use is a privilege, I wanted to respond to some of the issues brought up by people on the ‘net about what I had written. Let me start by saying that I understand that, normatively, some are upset by the very notion that copyright is a full-fledged right while fair use is relegated to being merely a privilege. A right sounds so much more important than a privilege, and it makes fair use sound like some second-class citizen to call it the latter. I think some people dismissed my post completely just based on its title—the reasoning didn’t matter since the conclusions weren’t what those people wanted to hear. I think such closed-mindedness is unfortunate and counterproductive, and if we don’t stop to understand what others are saying—even when we don’t like it—we’re doomed forever to talk past each other.

One person brushed off my post as arguing semantics and meaningless labels, but I think that the feedback I got from both sides of the debate shows that labels matter significantly to people. Besides, why would a person bother to reach out and say that my labels are unimportant unless that person thinks that labels are actually important? Labels matter. For example, I don’t think that Mike Masnick refers to copyright as a “monopoly privilege” because he thinks labels don’t matter. I think he specifically chooses both of those words because of the negative connotations associated with each. There’s nothing wrong with caring about labels, of course, though I do fault those such as Masnick who appear to do so opportunistically and only for rhetorical effect. When discussing legal terms of art, I prefer precision over perception. I don’t get the sense that Masnick feels the same way.

This passage from Professor Tom Bell exemplifies such thinking:

Nonetheless, for right or wrong, copyright represents an exception to the general rule that we can freely speak the truth. It thus won’t do to call copyright simply a “property right.” We should at least append the qualifying phrase, “and an anti-property right,” because copyright’s power comes at the expense of our rights in our pens, presses, and throats. Should we also call copyright an anti-person right? It endures only at cost to our liberties, after all. At any rate, copyright hardly deserves the honorable title, “property”; we would do far better to call it “privilege.” 1Tom W. Bell, Intellectual Privilege: A Libertarian View of Copyright 110-11 (2010).

Deciding whether something is a privilege based on our own subjective view as to whether the thing is “honorable” strikes me as an imprecise and inconsistent way to classify things. What makes more sense is a system that objectively classifies things, such as Hohfeld’s fundamental jural relations. Those who claim that copyright is a privilege and fair use is a right seem to be basing that view on nothing more than their gut feeling about the relative importance of each. The normative view that fair use shouldn’t be called a privilege because it’s just too important, I think, is based on the erroneous supposition that privileges are somehow less important than rights. Legally speaking, that’s not necessarily the case. This is demonstrated by the fact that a fair user’s privilege trumps a copyright owner’s right.

In fact, many of the “rights” that we hold most dear, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, are not even rights in the Hohfeldian sense. The “Bill of Rights” should more accurately be called the “Bill of Privileges and Immunities.” 2See, e.g., Jay S. Bybee, Taking Liberties With the First Amendment: Congress, Section 5, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 48 Vand. L. Rev. 1539, 1552 (1995) (“[W]e should observe that the Bill of Rights is not a bill of rights in any Hohfeldian sense, in any sense that people have claims enforceable against the government. Amendments Two through Eight are written as privileges and immunities, while the First Amendment is a disability.”); Scott R. Bauries, State Constitutions and Individual Rights: Conceptual Convergence in School Finance Litigation, 18 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 301, 316 (2011) (“Nearly all of the rules we cling to as ‘rights’ against legislation under the U.S. Constitution are really immunities, and many of the ‘negative duties’ we recognize are actually disabilities, because the legal relationships set up in the U.S. Constitution are overwhelmingly secondary rules.”). Some faulted me for not mentioning the First Amendment in my post, but the fact that fair use is imbued with constitutional significance doesn’t change the fact that it’s a privilege. Moreover, I think that people are under the common misperception that the First Amendment creates Hohfeldian rights. It doesn’t. The First Amendment tells Congress that it can’t make any laws abridging the freedom of speech. In Hohfeldian terms, this creates in the government a disability and in us an immunity from laws that abridge our freedom of speech. 3See, e.g., Bybee, 48 Vand. L. Rev. at 1556 (“The First Amendment is a subject-matter disability . . . . [I]t puts a category of laws beyond the competence of Congress. The disability is so complete that Congress is expressly forbidden to enact . . . laws abridging . . . freedom of speech and press . . . . The First Amendment is a rule about rules.”); Restatement (First) of Property § 4 (1936) (“An immunity, as the word is used in this Restatement, is a freedom on the part of one person against having a given legal relation altered by a given act or omission to act on the part of another person.”).

One person expressed concern over the last sentence of my post where I said: “A rightholder, or anyone else for that matter, can make the exercise of a would-be fair user’s privilege as easy or as difficult as he likes—even impossible if he so wishes.” I think the point is rather obvious, but I’ll give an example. If I write a novel on my typewriter, I can take that manuscript and lock it up in my safe. Another has the privilege of making fair use of my novel, even if that privilege is somewhat diminished as the novel in unpublished, but that privilege doesn’t arm the privilege-holder with any sort of legally enforceable claim against me that I make the novel available to him so he can exercise his privilege. I can lock it up forever or loan it to everyone else in the world but him without any liability since I am under no duty of noninterference with respect to the would-be fair user.

This is not to say that the constitutional underpinnings of fair use are unimportant. They are. The immunities granted to us by the First Amendment have significant repercussions when it comes to the privileges we have, such as fair use, vis-à-vis the rights granted to copyright owners. As unnatural as it may seem to the uninitiated, an immunity, or even a privilege for that matter, can be a much more powerful weapon than a right. Great rewards await those who can get past the labels to examine the substances beneath, and to that end, in this post I’ll explain how the First Amendment implications of fair use operate doctrinally.

Ad Hoc Balancing vs. Definitional Balancing

The interaction of copyright law and the First Amendment is a favorite subject of mine, and I’d like to take a step back and discuss the Supreme Court’s current approach to the subject. It’s helpful to start with how First Amendment challenges to speech restrictions work generally. The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .” Surely that means that all speech is protected, right? The answer, it turns out, is that not all speech is treated the same way, and, despite the minority view held by some absolutists, the First Amendment does not protect all speech. The tricky part is figuring out whether a particular instance of speech is protected or not.

Take, for example, the Sherman Act, which makes illegal agreements in restraint of trade. 4See 15 U.S.C.S. § 1 (Lexis 2013) (“Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.”). How should a court proceed if a defendant claims that the agreement he made with his codefendant is speech protected by the First Amendment, even if it’s in restraint of trade? The answer, as is so often the case in the law, is that the competing interests have to be balanced; the nonspeech interests have to be weighed against the speech interests. But where to do this balancing? The Supreme Court has identified certain types of speech that require a court to do a balancing of interests based on the particular facts of the case before the court. For other types of speech, the Court has found that no such balancing is necessary since the weighing of interests has already been done when the statute making that speech unlawful was promulgated. The former approach is referred to as ad hoc balancing, while the latter approach is referred to as categorical or definitional balancing.

Staying with the context of antitrust law, take the example of FTC v. SCTLA. 5FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Ass’n, 493 U.S. 411 (1990). There, a group of lawyers who represented indigent criminal defendants in Washington, D.C., agreed that they would not accept any new cases unless and until their fees were increased. The lawyers got their fee increase, but the FTC filed a complaint against them alleging that their group boycott was in violation of the antitrust laws. The lawyers argued that their concerted action was expression protected by the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed, finding that such boycotts were significantly expressive such that an ad hoc balancing of the competing interests presented in the particular case was necessary. The Supreme Court reversed, ruling instead that such boycotts were categorically unlawful:

In sum, there is thus nothing unique about the “expressive component” of respondents’ boycott. A rule that requires courts to apply the antitrust laws “prudently and with sensitivity” whenever an economic boycott has an “expressive component” would create a gaping hole in the fabric of those laws. Respondents’ boycott thus has no special characteristics meriting an exemption from the per se rules of antitrust law. 6Id. at 431-32.

Thus, the Supreme Court found that the antitrust laws at issue were balanced against countervailing First Amendment values at the definitional level, and this in turn meant that there was no need to do an ad hoc balancing of the competing interests, taking into account the particular defendants’ interests, as the Court of Appeals had done.

When analyzing a content-based restriction, which limits speech because of the idea or viewpoint conveyed, the Supreme Court has developed a two-tiered approach, separating low-value speech from high-value speech. A court first has to determine if the speech in question occupies a subordinate position in the spectrum of First Amendment values such that it is classified as low-value speech. If so, then that speech receives little or no First Amendment protection. As the Court famously noted over seventy years ago:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words—those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. 7Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571-72 (1942).

Over the years, the Court has added many other types of speech that are classified as low-value, such as express incitement, false statements of fact, commercial advertising, and child pornography. With low-value speech, the Court’s approach is that of definitional balancing where the weighing of competing interests is done at the rulemaking level. Rather than do an ad hoc balancing of a particular defendant’s free speech interests, the Court instead looks at the class of speech at issue as a whole to determine whether it is protected by the First Amendment or not. Take, for example, obscenity, where the Court has established a three-part test for determining whether speech is obscene. 8See Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 24 (1973). So long as a law regulating obscenity tracks the Court’s test, a First Amendment challenge of that law will necessarily fail—the First Amendment values have already been balanced by the Court at the definitional level.

The advantage of this definitional balancing is that courts down the road need only to apply the rule without doing any sort of ad hoc balancing based on the facts peculiar to the particular defendant before the court. It’s much easier to apply a general test than it is to consider the free speech interests of any given defendant. If the speech at issue does not fall into any of the classes of low-value speech, then it is high-value speech that receives significant First Amendment protection via an ad hoc balancing of the competing interests. A content-based restriction of high-value speech is analyzed under the rubric of strict scrutiny: The law at issue will be presumed unconstitutional, and it will only be upheld if it is “necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” 9Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 231 (1987); see also United States v. Playboy Entm’t Group, 529 U.S. 803, 813 (2000) (“If a statute regulates speech based on its content, it must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling Government interest. . . . If a less restrictive alternative would serve the Government’s purpose, the legislature must use that alternative.”).

The Supreme Court has also created a framework for analyzing a content-neutral restriction, which regulates speech without reference to its content. The primary example of a content-neutral regulation is a time, place, or manner restriction. For example, a law that regulates the maximum volume of amplified music permissible at a city-owned band shell is content-neutral since, though it regulates speech, it does so without regard to the ideas or viewpoints being expressed. A content-neutral regulation is analyzed under the rubric of intermediate scrutiny: For the law at issue to be upheld, it “must be narrowly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate, content-neutral interests,” though “it need not be the least restrictive or least intrusive means of doing so.” 10Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 798-99 (1989). This too is an ad hoc balancing of competing interests.

Thus, the Supreme Court’s approach to analyzing the constitutionality of a law that affects speech begins with classifying the law as being either content-neutral or content-based. If it’s content-neutral, then the ad hoc balancing of intermediate scrutiny is applied to it to determine whether the speech is protected by the First Amendment or not. If the speech interests outweigh the nonspeech interests, then it’s protected, and if the nonspeech interests outweigh the speech interests, then it’s not. If the law in question is content-based, the determination has to first be made as to whether the speech is classified as low-value speech or high-value speech. If it’s low-value speech, then the balancing has already been done definitionally at the rulemaking level, and if it’s high-value speech, then the ad hoc balancing of strict scrutiny is applied. I’m greatly simplifying things here, but these are the broad strokes.

Nimmer and the Definitional Balancing of Copyright

So how does copyright law fit into this framework? Professor Melville Nimmer published a seminal journal article in 1970 asking just that question. 11See Melville B. Nimmer, Does Copyright Abridge the First Amendment Guarantees of Free Speech and Press?, 17 UCLA L. Rev. 1180 (1970). The answer, in Nimmer’s opinion, lay in definitional balancing. Professor Neil Netanel, whose recent law review article I recommended in last week’s Friday’s Endnotes on Copyhype, explains Nimmer’s definitional balancing approach:

Nimmer argued that the tension between copyright and the First Amendment can be satisfactorily resolved, even if it cannot be eliminated. His proffered solution was a method for balancing speech and non-speech interests that he labeled “definitional balancing.” *** As Nimmer described that methodological approach, a court considering whether a given law unconstitutionally abridges speech weighs the non-speech interests that the law aims to serve against the speech interests that the law burdens. Based on that assessment, the court then propounds generally applicable rules governing which types of speech may give rise to liability under the law in question and which must enjoy a First Amendment privilege. 12Neil Weinstock Netanel, First Amendment Constraints on Copyright After Golan v. Holder, 60 UCLA L. Rev. 1082 ( 2013) [hereinafter “Netanel”].

Nimmer had published a law review article about definitional balancing in 1968, 13Melville B. Nimmer, The Right to Speak from Times to Time: First Amendment Theory Applied to Libel and Misapplied to Privacy, 56 Cal. L. Rev. 935 (1968). focusing on the then-recent Supreme Court opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan where the Court applied definitional balancing to defamation law. 14See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). While we may take the idea of definitional balancing for granted now, at the time Nimmer was writing his articles it was a relatively novel approach to First Amendment jurisprudence. Nimmer’s view that definitional balancing could be applied to copyright law was certainly ahead of its time. Nimmer located the definitional balancing internally to copyright law within the idea/expression dichotomy, the fair use doctrine, and the constitutional fiat that the copyright term be for a limited time. In Nimmer’s view, there was no need to do an ad hoc balancing when analyzing a First Amendment challenge to a copyright law because these internal doctrines already balanced First Amendment values at the definitional level.

Nimmer’s definitional balancing approach to copyright was first adopted by the Supreme Court in its 1985 opinion in Harper & Row. 15See Harper & Row, Publrs. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985). The issue there was whether the defendant’s use of a few hundred words from an unpublished manuscript of President Ford’s memoirs was fair use. In the Court’s opinion, the Second Circuit below had correctly noted “that copyright’s idea/expression dichotomy strikes a definitional balance between the First Amendment and the Copyright Act by permitting free communication of facts while still protecting an author’s expression. No author may copyright his ideas or the facts he narrates.” 16Id. at 556 (internal quotations and brackets omitted). The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that since the purported fair use involved a matter of great public concern, the traditional fair use test was inappropriate to balance the competing interests:

In view of the First Amendment protections already embodied in the Copyright Act’s distinction between copyrightable expression and uncopyrightable facts and ideas, and the latitude for scholarship and comment traditionally afforded by fair use, we see no warrant for expanding the doctrine of fair use to create what amounts to a public figure exception to copyright. Whether verbatim copying from a public figure’s manuscript in a given case is or is not fair must be judged according to the traditional equities of fair use. 17Id at 560.

Thus, the Supreme Court declined the invitation to apply an ad hoc balancing to the facts of the case at hand, instead finding that the Copyright Act and the First Amendment were balanced at the definitional level through the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine. The Court thus imbued these two doctrines with constitutional significance, and it created a dividing line between speech that is protected by the First Amendment and speech that is not. Speech that is fair use or that appropriates only facts is protected by the First Amendment, while speech that appropriates expression but which is not fair use is not.

But the Court’s adoption of definitional balancing in Harper & Row did not stop many commentators from felling many trees while suggesting that ad hoc balancing was the better approach to weighing free speech interests against those sought to be promoted by copyright. For example, Professors Mark Lemley and Eugene Volokh argued that copyright is “a form of content-based, government-imposed speech restriction. The mere fact that the restriction is denominated a ‘property right’ should not exempt it from conventional First Amendment scrutiny.” 18Mark A. Lemley and Eugene Volokh, Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke L.J. 147, 206 (1998). Since in their view copyright is a content-based restriction, that scrutiny to be applied would therefore be strict. Similarly, Professor Neil Netanel has argued that “under the category approach that has developed since the Nimmer article was published, copyright law constitutes content-neutral speech regulation that should be subject to heightened, but not strict, scrutiny.” 19Neil Weinstock Netanel, Locating Copyright Within the First Amendment Skein, 54 Stan. L. Rev. 1, 54 (2001). Netanel would place copyright “within a subcategory of content-neutral speech restriction that courts have subjected to considerably more rigorous scrutiny.” 20Id. at 55.

The Supreme Court has declined to follow the suggestion made by commentators that ad hoc balancing is the proper way to approach First Amendment challenges to copyright laws, and it has instead continued down the path of definitional balancing first adopted in Harper & Row. The two most recent opinions where the Court has discussed this are Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003 and Golan v. Holder in 2012. 21See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003); Golan v. Holder, 132 S.Ct. 873 (2012). I wrote about the First Amendment implications of these two opinions in a prior post.

In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court analyzed a First Amendment challenge of the Copyright Term Extension Act (“CTEA”), which extended by 20 years the copyright terms of future and existing works. The petitioners had argued that the CTEA was a content-neutral regulation warranting the ad hoc balancing of intermediate scrutiny. The Supreme Court disagreed: “We reject petitioners’ plea for imposition of uncommonly strict scrutiny on a copyright scheme that incorporates its own speech-protective purposes and safeguards.” 22Id. at 218-19. The Court reiterated its statement from Harper & Row that the “idea/expression dichotomy strikes a definitional balance between the First Amendment and the Copyright Act,” and it again cited the fair use doctrine as providing “considerable latitude for scholarship and comment.” 23Id. at 219-20 (internal quotations omitted). In summation, the Court wholeheartedly adopted Nimmer’s definitional balancing:

The First Amendment securely protects the freedom to make—or decline to make—one’s own speech; it bears less heavily when speakers assert the right to make other people’s speeches. To the extent such assertions raise First Amendment concerns, copyright’s built-in free speech safeguards are generally adequate to address them. We recognize that the D. C. Circuit spoke too broadly when it declared copyrights “categorically immune from challenges under the First Amendment.” But when, as in this case, Congress has not altered the traditional contours of copyright protection, further First Amendment scrutiny is unnecessary. 24Id. at 221 (internal citations omitted).

I, and others, have dubbed this the “traditional contours” test. The Court is saying that so long as a copyright statute does not disturb the traditional contours, i.e., the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine, then that statute will not be subjected to any sort of ad hoc balancing through the mechanism of heightened First Amendment scrutiny. Instead, the statute is already balanced at the definitional level via the internal safeguards of the traditional contours. Despite being a straightforward statement of the law, the traditional contours test was wildly misconstrued in the commentary, and a flurry of scholarly writing came out wondering what was within the traditional contours and what was without. The view was that if something could be identified as being outside of the traditional contours, then that would trigger heightened scrutiny and its concomitant ad hoc balancing.

Such thinking led to a First Amendment challenge to Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in Golan v. Holder. Section 514 granted copyright protection to foreign works that had previously been in the public domain in the United States. Petitioners argued that pulling works out of the public domain transgressed the traditional contours and thus required the application of heightened scrutiny to Section 514. The Supreme Court rejected the argument:

Given the “speech-protective purposes and safeguards” embraced by copyright law, we concluded in Eldred that there was no call for the heightened review petitioners sought in that case. We reach the same conclusion here. Section 514 leaves undisturbed the “idea/expression” distinction and the “fair use” defense. 25Golan, 132 S.Ct. at 890-91 (internal citations omitted).

The Court made clear in Golan what it thought it had made clear in Eldred, namely, that the traditional contours only include the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine. And since these traditional contours balance the First Amendment with the Copyright Act at the definitional level, no ad hoc balancing through the application of heightened scrutiny is necessary. Thus, the Court’s current approach to a First Amendment challenge to a copyright law is to look at whether the law in question has altered the traditional contours of the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine. If not, then the law passes constitutional muster without the need to do any ad hoc balancing, and if so, then ad hoc balancing is to be applied.

Netanel and the DMCA Anticircumvention Provisions

Not surprisingly, since the Court reiterated its statement of the traditional contours test in Golan, commentators have started constructing their arguments to work within that framework. One example is in the recent law review article by Professor Neil Netanel that I mentioned above. In the article, Netanel’s reading of the traditional contours test comports with my own:

Golan strongly suggests that it is by virtue of the idea/expression dichotomy and fair use privilege that copyright law not only is immune from First Amendment scrutiny but also comports with First Amendment requirements. Following Golan, Congress may apparently extend and expand copyright law as it wishes, without giving rise to First Amendment scrutiny, so long as it leaves the idea/expression dichotomy and fair use defense “undisturbed.” But if a Copyright Act amendment were to eliminate, eviscerate, or otherwise disturb the idea/expression dichotomy or fair use defense, the amendment should be stricken down as failing to pass First Amendment muster . . . . 26Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1102.

Netanel qualifies this last statement by noting that such a statute, which alters the traditional contours, wouldn’t necessarily be struck down since “Congress might enact some alternative provision that adequately accommodates constitutional protections of free speech” in the same way the traditional contours do. 27Id. But under the traditional contours test, a statute that alters the idea/expression dichotomy or the fair use doctrine would certainly be subjected to ad hoc balancing under the imposition of heightened First Amendment scrutiny.

Netanel identifies the DMCA anticircumvention provisions as altering the traditional contours since courts have interpreted them to “make no exception for circumventing access controls or hybrid technological-protection measures when needed to engage in fair use.” 28Id. at 1114. Instead, Netanel notes, courts read the DMCA “to preserve fair use only as a defense to a claim for traditional copyright infringement.” 29Id. at 1115. As an example of this, Netanel cites the Second Circuit opinion in Universal v. Corley where the court of appeals held that there is no fair use defense to a DMCA violation. 30See Universal City Studios v. Corley, 273 F.3d 429 (2d Cir. 2001). The Second Circuit there had also stated that fair use is not required by the First Amendment, and Netanel faults the court of appeals for this: “After Golan and Eldred, that statement is no longer good law. As those rulings make clear, the availability of the fair use defense is a necessary condition for copyright law to survive a First Amendment challenge.” 31Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1115.

Netanel is overstating the traditional contours test. The test merely states that the existence of the traditional contours is sufficient to avoid the need for ad hoc balancing. If either of the traditional contours is altered, then a court is to engage in ad hoc balancing via the application of heightened scrutiny. But the traditional contours test does not say, as Netanel suggests, that the existence of both traditional contours is necessary to survive this ad hoc balancing. A statute could alter fair use yet still survive the subsequent application of heightened scrutiny. Thus, Netanel’s suggestion that “the availability of the fair use defense is a necessary condition for copyright law to survive a First Amendment challenge” is mistaken.

Netanel also takes issue with the Second Circuit’s statement in Corley that fair use “has never been held to be a guarantee of access to copyrighted material in order to copy it by the fair user’s preferred technique or in the format of the original.” 32Corley, 273 F.3d at 459. “This argument raises a fascinating question,” Netanel posits, that even if “fair use secures a given speaker’s right to copy copyrighted material for a particular use, does that necessarily mean that the speaker is entitled to make a direct digital copy?” 33Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1116. After stating that the case law offers no satisfactory answer, Netanel claims that “in light of Golan and other cases, the more plausible argument is that there must be a fair use defense to the DMCA anticircumvention prohibition, lest the DMCA run afoul of the First Amendment.” 34Id.

In support of this conclusion, Netanel cites a report from the Register of Copyrights which argues that effective fair use may not be possible without perfect digital copies. Moreover, Netanel cites a line of cases where it was held that foreclosing a particular medium of expression burdens free expression and gives rise to heightened First Amendment scrutiny. To this, Netanel argues that anything restrictive of a person’s use of a given technology for the communication of protected speech can give rise to heightened scrutiny as well. Netanel concludes that “the DMCA’s prohibition of the use of circumvention technology needed to engage in effective, constitutionally protected fair use would seem to run afoul of the First Amendment. . . . Under Golan’s definitional balancing approach, fair use copying should enjoy an absolute privilege against liability under the DMCA.” 35Id. at 1118.

I think Netanel’s arguments miss the mark. First of all, the fair use defense codified in Section 107 by its terms applies only to prima facie violations of the rights granted to copyright owners in Section 106: “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 . . . the fair use of a copyrighted work . . . is not an infringement of copyright.” 3617 U.S.C.S. § 107 (Lexis 2013); I leave aside the application of Section 107 to Section 106A. The reason courts don’t apply fair use to infringements of other rights, such as the anticircumvention rights granted by the DMCA, is because the violation of those rights is not copyright infringement. Despite fair use not being a defense to a DMCA violation, Netanel is trying to make it one by cleverly sneaking it in the back door. He does this by playing the First Amendment trump card and claiming that the DMCA anticircumvention provisions have altered the traditional contours such that ad hoc balancing is necessary under the test articulated in Eldred and Golan.

The problem with this line of reasoning, I think, is that the DMCA has done no such thing. The traditional contours have not been affected, and fair use is still a perfect defense to a claim of copyright infringement. Part of the problem with Netanel’s approach is that he’s treating fair use as right, as demonstrated by his framing the question he’s trying to answer by presupposing that “fair use secures a given speaker’s right to copy copyrighted material for a particular use.” It does no such thing. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, just because fair use has a constitutional dimension, that doesn’t mean that it’s magically transformed from a privilege into a right in the Hohfeldian sense. It’s still a privilege that negates the duty one would otherwise have not to copy, and it creates in the copyright owner the correlative no-right, that is, the lack of a legally enforceable claim against another should he so copy.

Just because our exercise of the fair use privilege is protected by the First Amendment, that doesn’t mean we can violate the rights of others while making fair use of a given work. For example, think of my manuscript sitting in my locked safe. That the First Amendment protects another’s privilege to make fair use of it doesn’t negate his duty not to break into my safe. Fair use might relieve him of liability for my copyright claim should I sue him for copyright infringement, but it’s certainly not going to excuse him from liability for the tort and crime of breaking into my safe in the first place. The same can be said of the DMCA anticircumvention provisions. Fair use might absolve a person of liability for copyright infringement if he violates my anticircumvention rights and makes fair use of my work, but it’s not going to make his violation of the DMCA anticircumvention provisions disappear. The ends don’t erase the means.

Netanel is absolutely correct to argue that fair use is (or at least can be) speech protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has made that clear in Harper & Row, Eldred, and Golan. I say “can be” because not all fair use is constitutionally protected speech. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Sony finding that certain time-shifting was fair use did not turn on application of the First Amendment. 37See Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984). But just because fair use is speech protected by the First Amendment, it nonetheless remains only a privilege. And as a mere privilege, there is no duty of noninterference in others. A fair user has no legally enforceable claim against those that stand in his way as he attempts to make fair use of a given work. The First Amendment provides the fair user with only a shield, not a sword, and a fair user has but a privilege, not a right.

But this does not mean that a copyright law cannot be or should not be subjected to heightened First Amendment scrutiny, and the funny thing is, I actually agree with Netanel that ad hoc balancing should be applied to the DMCA anticircumvention provisions. I arrive at that conclusion by a different pathway. As I mentioned in my prior post about Eldred and Golan, I think that the Supreme Court has only applied the traditional contours test to statutes, such as the CTEA or Section 514 mentioned above, that define the scope of substantive copyright rights granted by Section 106. This makes sense because the traditional contours, i.e., the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine, definitionally balance substantive copyright rights (such as the reproduction right) with countervailing First Amendment values. But when a statute doesn’t define the scope of the substantive copyrights rights—as the DMCA anticircumvention provisions do not—then it makes no sense to say that the statute is definitionally balanced by using reasoning that has been applied only to substantive copyright rights.

Thus, I think Netanel’s intuition that the DMCA anticircumvention provisions need to be subjected to ad hoc balancing is correct. This is so because the definitional balancing applied to substantive copyright rights, such as the reproduction right or the distribution right, tells us nothing about whether other rights, such as the anticircumvention rights, are balanced. Perhaps they are, or perhaps they are not. I also agree with Netanel that some flavor of intermediate scrutiny is appropriate since the DMCA anticircumvention provisions create only content-neutral restrictions. But there’s no need to frame the argument by saying that the DMCA anticircumvention provisions alter the traditional contours for the simple reason that the traditional contours test doesn’t apply to the rights created by the DMCA anticircumvention provisions since those rights are not substantive copyright rights. Like Netanel, I’ll pass for now on doing the actual analysis of whether the DMCA anticircumvention provisions pass the ad hoc balancing of heightened scrutiny, choosing instead to reflect on what the proper test should be for its own sake.

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References   [ + ]

1. Tom W. Bell, Intellectual Privilege: A Libertarian View of Copyright 110-11 (2010).
2. See, e.g., Jay S. Bybee, Taking Liberties With the First Amendment: Congress, Section 5, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 48 Vand. L. Rev. 1539, 1552 (1995) (“[W]e should observe that the Bill of Rights is not a bill of rights in any Hohfeldian sense, in any sense that people have claims enforceable against the government. Amendments Two through Eight are written as privileges and immunities, while the First Amendment is a disability.”); Scott R. Bauries, State Constitutions and Individual Rights: Conceptual Convergence in School Finance Litigation, 18 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 301, 316 (2011) (“Nearly all of the rules we cling to as ‘rights’ against legislation under the U.S. Constitution are really immunities, and many of the ‘negative duties’ we recognize are actually disabilities, because the legal relationships set up in the U.S. Constitution are overwhelmingly secondary rules.”).
3. See, e.g., Bybee, 48 Vand. L. Rev. at 1556 (“The First Amendment is a subject-matter disability . . . . [I]t puts a category of laws beyond the competence of Congress. The disability is so complete that Congress is expressly forbidden to enact . . . laws abridging . . . freedom of speech and press . . . . The First Amendment is a rule about rules.”); Restatement (First) of Property § 4 (1936) (“An immunity, as the word is used in this Restatement, is a freedom on the part of one person against having a given legal relation altered by a given act or omission to act on the part of another person.”).
4. See 15 U.S.C.S. § 1 (Lexis 2013) (“Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.”).
5. FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Ass’n, 493 U.S. 411 (1990).
6. Id. at 431-32.
7. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571-72 (1942).
8. See Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 24 (1973).
9. Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 231 (1987); see also United States v. Playboy Entm’t Group, 529 U.S. 803, 813 (2000) (“If a statute regulates speech based on its content, it must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling Government interest. . . . If a less restrictive alternative would serve the Government’s purpose, the legislature must use that alternative.”).
10. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 798-99 (1989).
11. See Melville B. Nimmer, Does Copyright Abridge the First Amendment Guarantees of Free Speech and Press?, 17 UCLA L. Rev. 1180 (1970).
12. Neil Weinstock Netanel, First Amendment Constraints on Copyright After Golan v. Holder, 60 UCLA L. Rev. 1082 ( 2013) [hereinafter “Netanel”].
13. Melville B. Nimmer, The Right to Speak from Times to Time: First Amendment Theory Applied to Libel and Misapplied to Privacy, 56 Cal. L. Rev. 935 (1968).
14. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
15. See Harper & Row, Publrs. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985).
16. Id. at 556 (internal quotations and brackets omitted).
17. Id at 560.
18. Mark A. Lemley and Eugene Volokh, Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases, 48 Duke L.J. 147, 206 (1998).
19. Neil Weinstock Netanel, Locating Copyright Within the First Amendment Skein, 54 Stan. L. Rev. 1, 54 (2001).
20. Id. at 55.
21. See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003); Golan v. Holder, 132 S.Ct. 873 (2012).
22. Id. at 218-19.
23. Id. at 219-20 (internal quotations omitted).
24. Id. at 221 (internal citations omitted).
25. Golan, 132 S.Ct. at 890-91 (internal citations omitted).
26. Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1102.
27. Id.
28. Id. at 1114.
29. Id. at 1115.
30. See Universal City Studios v. Corley, 273 F.3d 429 (2d Cir. 2001).
31. Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1115.
32. Corley, 273 F.3d at 459.
33. Netanel, 60 UCLA L. Rev. at 1116.
34. Id.
35. Id. at 1118.
36. 17 U.S.C.S. § 107 (Lexis 2013); I leave aside the application of Section 107 to Section 106A.
37. See Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984).

About the author: Devlin Hartline

Devlin is a husband, father, and law geek (JD & LLM). He is currently an SJD candidate at Tulane Law in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he is writing his dissertation on copyright law. He is also a Mark Twain Copyright Fellow at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason Law in Arlington, Virginia.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Further Thoughts on Fair Use and the First Amendment | Law Theories

  2. You aren’t going to be popular by calling the first amendment a privilege, that’s for sure.

    • Devlin Hartline

      It’s not a privilege–the First Amendment creates in the government (it says “Congress,” but it’s been interpreted more broadly than that) a disability to pass laws that abridge the freedom of speech, and that creates in us the correlative immunity. But as I indicate in my post, I’m not trying to win any popularity contests. I’m trying to accurately discuss the law. If people are going to toss out words like right and privilege, indicating that those labels have importance, then I think it’s important to discuss exactly what those terms mean doctrinally.

      Hohfeld’s jural relations are the gold standard when it comes to discussing legal relations such as rights and privileges. That’s why the editors of the Restatement (First) of Property adopted them in 1936, and that’s why Professor Bell today discusses whether his views jibe with Hohfeld’s. Hohfeld wasn’t the first to come up with them, and a lot of people have built upon his work since then, but Hohfeld’s paper from 1913 is still highly regarded today.

  3. In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the court deemed that “[a]ssert[ing] the right to make other people‘s speeches” is not a right. See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 123 S. Ct. 769, 788-89, 154 L. Ed. 2d 683 (2003).

    Again, concerning the DMCA Anti-Circumvention provision, Professor Neil Netanel stated the motive was to post the resulting [theft], above and beyond the fair use statute, on YouTube, which disqualifies the underlying 17 USC § 1201 statute because another entity, a commercial company, YouTube (owned by Google) enables the motive for an instant public display. Thus, your research, albeit very well, cannot disengage the motive, and cannot disengage the [Grokster III].

    I find it unlikely that Professor Neil Netanel would create a video of Hollywood films showing smoking under his actual name, address, telephone number, SS number, bank statements on YouTube. But he would with maybe a yahoo address, and a pseudonym; hence, the enabler, YouTube is therefore the guilty party.

    The simple case to use outside YouTube enabling the motive for theft (i.e.: as if YouTube never existed and the abuser posted it on one own bought and purchased URL) would be Roy Export Co. Establishment of Vaduz, Liechtenstein, Black, Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc., 503 F.Supp. (S.D.N.Y.1980)

    Good luck.

    Thanks.

    • Devlin Hartline

      In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the court deemed that “[a]ssert[ing] the right to make other people‘s speeches” is not a right. See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 123 S. Ct. 769, 788-89, 154 L. Ed. 2d 683 (2003).

      Yeah, that sentence at the end of Eldred is interesting: “The First Amendment securely protects the freedom to make—or decline to make—one’s own speech; it bears less heavily when speakers assert the right to make other people’s speeches.” I don’t read it as Justice Ginsburg discussing whether it’s right or privilege in the Hohfeldian sense. I think she’s saying that copying other people’s speech doesn’t necessarily raise First Amendment concerns, and whatever concerns are raised are balanced definitionally by the traditional contours. I also read it as her placing copying that’s protected by the First Amendment somewhere in the middle between low-value speech and high-value speech. I presented the low-value speech/high-value speech thing as a dichotomy in the post, but I think it’s really more of a spectrum.

      • Ginsburg said “asserting the right” to copy others. The 7th Circuit in Aimster Copyright Litigation used that specific line from Eldred to determine Aimster did not have the right to enable.

        • Devlin Hartline

          Great find! I like Judge Posner’s style:

          Copyright law and the principles of equitable relief are quite complicated enough without the superimposition of First Amendment case law on them; and we have been told recently by the Supreme Court not only that “copyright law contains built-in First Amendment accommodations” but also that, in any event, the First Amendment “bears less heavily when speakers assert the right to make other people’s speeches.” Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 123 S.Ct. 769, 788-89, 154 L.Ed.2d 683 (2003). Or, we add, to copy, or enable the copying of, other people’s music.