Copyright law is generally justified under three theories.1

The first is the utilitarian, or consequentialist, basis. Society benefits from the production of creative works. But in the absence of legal protection, creative production tends to be inefficient since costs of creation are high while costs of copying and distribution are low.

The second form of copyright justification is based on moral rights or personality claims. This theory embraces the view that expressive works are the extension of one’s self and thus are deserving of protection because of an individual’s inherent dignity.2

The final theory owes its origins primarily to the work of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Here, the justification of copyright stems from the right of an individual to control the fruits of his labor.

Generally speaking, Anglo-American copyright law adheres more closely to a utilitarian system while Continental legal systems start with a moral rights basis — though there is plenty of overlap in the two systems. The Lockean justification, however, has largely fallen out of favor among academics and policy makers.

But as legal professor Adam Mossoff explains in his recent article Saving Locke from Marx: The Labor Theory of Value in Intellectual Property Theory, Locke’s justification has been “relegated to the dustbin” of history not because it is faulty, but because it has been misunderstood. As Mossoff puts it, “Locke’s labor theory of value has suffered much at the hands of contemporary philosophers.”

According to the abstract:

The labor theory of value is fundamental to John Locke’s justification for property rights, but philosopher Edwin Hettinger argued in an oft-cited article that it fails to justify intellectual property rights. In making this critique, though, Hettinger redefined Locke’s theory into a theory about proportional physical labor creating economic value, just as Robert Nozick, G.A. Cohen and other philosophers have done. In response to this strawman attack, this article describes Locke’s labor theory of value and how Locke himself applied it to intellectual property rights. It does so by analyzing the actual text of the Second Treatise, including many forgotten or neglected sections, and by integrating Locke’s property theory within the context of his natural law ethical theory, as presented in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and in other works. In its proper context, Locke’s concept of labor refers to production, which is both an intellectual and physical activity. His concept of value refers to what serves the flourishing life of a rational being, which is a conception of the good that is more robust than merely physical status or economic wealth. Locke’s own text and philosophical arguments answer the absurdities imposed on him by Hettinger, Nozick, Cohen and others. Even more important, understanding his labor theory of value explains why Locke expressly approves of inventions in his property theory and why he explicitly argues that authors have property rights (copyrights) in their writings, which are arguments that are seemingly lost on his modern critics.

For non-philosophers, like myself, the writing may at times be dense, but it is no less important and well worth a read. As Mossoff points out, the Lockean view of copyright was prevalent in the US during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Continental Congress resolution to the States to pass copyright legislation was inspired in part by lobbying from author Joel Barlow. His 1783 letter to the Congress reads in part:

There is certainly no kind of property, in the nature of things, so much his own, as the works which a person originates from his own creative imagination: And when he has spent great part of his life in study, wasted his time, his fortune & perhaps his health in improving his knowledge & correcting his taste, it is a principle of natural justice that he should be entitled to the profits arising from the sale of his works as a compensation for his labor in producing them, & his risque of reputation in offering them to the Public.

Twelve of the thirteen existing states passed legislation following the resolution, with the majority of them explicitly espousing the principle that authors are entitled to the value of their labor.

Labor and Value

Since that time, legal scholars and philosophers have eroded this prevalent view. Mossoff explains why. John Locke, the Founding Fathers, and early American jurists weren’t laboring (pardon the pun) under a false assumption; it is the legal scholars and philosophers who are mistaken, misconstruing Locke’s notion of labor with only physical labor and his notion of value with only economic value.

According to Mossoff:

[Locke's] concept of labor refers to production, which has intellectual as well as physical characteristics, and his concept of value serves his moral ideal of human flourishing, which is a conception of the good that is more robust than merely physical status or economic wealth.

The Feist Fallacy

This erosion in Locke’s theory was bolstered by the US Supreme Court’s 1991 decision in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service. There, the Court heard a dispute between two competing publishers of telephone books, with one accused of copying the directory listings of the other. The Court held that the “sweat of the brow” doctrine did not extend copyright protection to factual information — the original publisher of the telephone directory could not claim copyright protection over its collection of telephone numbers merely because it had expended labor compiling them.

Mossoff points out that “intellectual property scholars widely believe that Feist represents an unequivocal rejection of Locke’s labor theory of property in copyright law.” Though not mentioned in the article, noted copyright scholar William Patry, in his 2008 book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, goes so far as to say the Court rejected the “labor basis for copyright” as unconstitutional.3 Yet the Court explicitly approved of Locke’s theory, says Mossoff. The “sweat of the brow” doctrine relies solely on the physical labor expended in creation, so when one realizes that Locke was not talking solely of physical labor, one realizes the mistake scholars have made.

Mossoff stops short of endorsing Locke’s justification of intellectual property. As he notes:

This article describes Locke’s argument for his labor theory of value in order to expose the strawman attack on his property theory by contemporary philosophers, especially within intellectual property theory, but it does not purport to justify his labor theory of value. This justification, which raises difficult questions about the foundations of value theory, such as whether values are objective, subjective, or intrinsic, must be left for another day.

It will be interesting to see if scholars build upon Mossoff’s work, but my hope is that Locke’s labor theory regains its stature among the other justifications for copyright. We live in a global, pluralistic society, and legal doctrines, including copyright law, should enshrine pluralistic justifications. Just because someone — whether an individual or a multi-billion dollar corporation — can exploit the value of someone else’s labor doesn’t make the fact that they shoulda foregone conclusion. In Locke’s words, man is a “proprietor of his own person”, and because of this, as Mossoff interprets Locke, “value-creating, productive labor is a moral activity that creates in the laborer a moral claim to the products of his labor.” These principles have served society well, and no technological innovation can render them obsolete.


  1. Moore, Adam, “Intellectual Property“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); see also the Wikipedia entry on Justifications for copyright. []
  2. As with the utilitarian justification of copyright, rights-based theories are not static. Recent work by Abraham Drassinower, for example, presents a rights-based justification of copyright that conceives works as communicative acts. []
  3. Pg. 65. []

And we’re back.

Posting has been sparse in the past couple of weeks as I focused on preparing for the bar exam, but with that behind me, I can now turn my attention back to the blog. Today will be a super-sized collection of links as I continue to catch up with many of the recent developments in copyright law. Enjoy!

Tinseltown, Ghost Town — A sobering op-ed from the NY Times on how the economic downturn has hit the film industry. “Her eviction follows that of our mutual neighbors, actors on a well-known soap opera forced out of their house in a foreclosure in a driving rainstorm four days before Christmas. Their dark, vacant houses, emblazoned with the public notices taped in the windows like shameful scarlet A’s, are holes in the hidden, fraying social fabric of Hollywood, where a vast majority belong not to the 1 percent but to the 99.”

Patience and piracy: Why helping yourself hurts good TV — Todd VanDerWerff, writing at the Onion AV Club, delves into the recent Oatmeal comic on piracy. Highly recommended. Says VanDerWerff, “I came into this piece with the idea that there was an easy answer here: Be more patient. The Internet has created a largely immature desire to have everything you’ve ever wanted now, and if it’s not available now, well, who cares about the companies who funded that entertainment in the first place? For the most part, I find this sort of behavior—and the self-righteous chest-thumping that too often goes along with it—distasteful.”

Comments, Questions, Concerns:  RIAA CEO Reflects On Responses To His New York Times Op-Ed — The RIAA’s Cary Sherman provides a thoughtful response to those who volunteered their thoughts on his article in the NY Times earlier this month. “Skepticism is a healthy and useful thing.  It is good to question.  But that posture should apply universally to all sources of information.  The technology companies that turned their platforms into engines of advocacy did so because it was in their business interests.  I don’t have a problem with them looking out for their economic interests, but technology companies have an obligation to make sure that readers and users get straight facts and understand that this is about business, not idealistic values.”

Piracy is not competition — When brick-and-mortar bookstores complain about the threat they face from, they are complaining that customers will leave them for a superior alternative; when Hollywood complains about piracy, they are complaining that customers have left them for an illegal alternative. They have stopped paying for Hollywood products yet are still consuming them. These are not even remotely similar situations — morally, legally, or economically.”

Hadopi Becomes un Ballon de Football Politique — Bill Rosenblatt takes a look at some of the recent statistics concerning France’s graduated response program and offers some comments on the politics of copyright debates. “Like it or not,” he notes, “the Hadopi system seems to be working so far.” “Let Hadopi-haters do their own serious quantitative studies, and let’s compare the results.  Let’s make the judgments on facts, and for God’s sake let’s not let political posturing pollute the atmosphere.”

Keeping the Pirate Bays at Bay — Barry Sookman offers his usual stellar insights into a current UK High Court case where record labels are seeking ISP blocking orders against the notorious Pirate Bay. “Based on previous jurisprudence in the UK and elsewhere in the EU,” says Sookman, “it seems very likely that the UK High Court will make an order blocking or impeding access to The Pirate Bay.”

Copyright, piracy and when fans need to stop circulating the tapes — The Whine Seller’s Hillary DePiano ponders the challenges created by the ease of piracy and difficulty of creating legitimate online outlets. Obviously, content creators want to make it as easy and convenient for consumers to access their works, yet pirates have a clear advantage when they don’t have to worry about pesky details like licensing or the costs of producing content.

The end of two free culture myths — John Degen highlights recent comments by Canadian attorney James Gannon in front of the Bill C-11 Committee of Parliament. The myths? Number 1: “Only old, incumbent players advocate for strong copyright protection. The new generation doesn’t bother with copyright.” And number 2: “Those advocating strong copyright protection just don’t understand new technology.”

The Relationship Between the ISP Safe Harbors and the Ordinary Rules of Copyright Liability[PDF] — An informative academic introduction to how ordinary principles of direct and secondary copyright liability have interacted with the DMCA safe harbors since their introduction, by IP lawyer and professor R. Anthony Reese. “The safe harbors may be more valuable than they initially appear for OSPs facing secondary liability claims, and less valuable than they initially appear for OSPs facing direct infringement claims.”

Cord Cutting Can Wait: Subscription TV Added 343,000 Subs in Q4 — Reports PaidContent, “The nation’s top cable, satellite and telco TV service providers grew their customer base sharply in the last quarter of 2011, reversing several years of steep decline. … So what’s happening here? Did the cord-cutting movement stall out? Hardly—it was the bad economy all along.”

Celebrating Independent Film at the DC IFF Hill Summit — The Copyright Alliance reports on a recent panel discussion at the DC Independent Film Festival Summit on the Hill. Congressman Brad Sherman gave a keynote on the importance of copyright protection for independent filmmakers, followed by the panel discussion on online video sharing and piracy.

Business Matters: When is it Safe to Say Google Music Has Failed? — Glenn Peoples at Billboard says: “Google’s giant footprint was to give Google Music unparalleled access to music lovers. But according to a report by CNET’s Greg Sandoval, Google Music has disappointed industry executives in its 3 short months of existence.”

Author discovers that Amazon can reprice his indie Kindle books however they want and cut his royalties, at will — Meet the new boss. “Hines points out that when his traditional publisher and its bookseller partners decide to offer his work at sale prices, he still gets paid royalties based on the cover price, and discusses the difficulties he faces in lacking the clout of an agent or a major publisher in negotiating with Amazon over this practice.”

The Fallacy Of Music Like Water — A thoughtful guest post from Portland songwriter and producer Gavin Castleton. Castleton points out that “proponents of the Music Like Water concept have put far more thought into making everything free to the consumer than they have into making sure people can find what they want, and in order for artists and consumers to have a better experience with music, distribution and filtering have to be lockstep.”

Scroogle: Dear Google, we’re not bots, we’re HUMAN — Why is Google so intent on creating artificial scarcity for its search results?

Upcoming Supreme Court Case May Be Key To Holding Spy Tech Companies Responsible For Human Rights Violations — The EFF argues that the US should hold technology companies liable for what their users do with their products.

Spinning the Online Piracy Debate — Christopher Shea at the Wall Street Journal reports on how a study that examined the effects of P2P downloading on US box office receipts has been spun by some, including Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow and TorrentFreak, to show no harm from piracy. (I would add Public Knowledge to this list.) This has prompted one of the study’s authors, Joel Waldfogel, to write a blog post in response. “We think our marquee result is the opposite,” said Waldfogel. “We do find evidence that piracy depresses international sales.”

African IP Summit short a development dimension? — The Afro-IP blog presents a comment from law professor Mark Schultz taking NGOs to task for criticism about the first-ever continent wide intellectual property conference in Africa. Well worth a read:

Inventions, creative works, and other fruits of the mind are not solely the product of the Global North. The human mind is the one resource we share in common, and everybody, everywhere has the capacity to create and innovate. Thus, the people of developing countries should not be treated as mere consumers of the products, innovation, and creativity of wealthy countries. IP is not an obstacle to poor people getting what they need from rich people; it can instead be the means by which the poor gain the things they need to flourish by protecting the products of their intellectual labor.

I wish that these assertions represented an attack on strawmen, but they do not. All throughout the Development Agenda discussions, the helplessness of developing countries was the implicit and sometimes explicit premise articulated by IP skeptics. It angered me then while I was sitting in the WIPO assembly hall in Geneva, and still angers me. IP isn’t something that helps only wealthy people. It’s something that could offer empowerment and security to the filmmakers of Nollywood and their aspiring cousins in Sollywood (RSA) and Hillywood (Rwanda); it could keep talented researchers at home and support the development of domestic industries.

Blackout?  What Blackout? “The SOPA blackout was about as organic as the masses of North Koreans crying in the streets upon hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death” — As more time passes since the online protests against SOPA, more and more people are digging into the driving forces behind it. As a character in one editorial comic puts it: “Ok, something’s up — that was way too easy.” Chris Castle reviews David Rodnitzky’s article (featured in a previous Endnotes) that examines some of these groups and lobbyists and adds additional info and context.

Protecting Content and Promoting Innovation in a Digital World: A Post-SOPA/PIPA Conversation — The Paley Center for Media hosted this interesting panel discussion between NBCUniversal General Counsel Rick Cotton and Union Square Venture’s Fred Wilson, where the two discussed the future of copyright on the internet.

Poll: Americans not with internet lobby on SOPA/PIPA — “There is a big political disconnect between the fact that ~80% of Americans believe online piracy and counterfeit drugs is a problem worthy of stronger laws, while the Internet lobby convinced millions of Americans to oppose a bipartisan proposed solution to this piracy problem – by characterizing the proposed legislation as “censorship” and “breaking the Internet.””

5 Misconceptions Sites/Hosts Have About the DMCA — Jonathan Bailey looks at some of the most common mistakes website hosts make dealing with the DMCA’s safe harbors.

Hit record — Editor-in-chief Kerry Lauerman reports on lessons his company has learned. Aggregation, staff cuts, and emphasis on churning out content — doesn’t work. Focusing on originality, quality over quantity, and publishing less while spending more time on writing — does work. The site has grown its readership for the second year in a row under the latter approach.

How SOPA and PIPA did and didn’t change how Washington lobbying works — A surprising take on the internet blackout from the Sunlight Foundation.1 The post notes how tech lobbying has quickly eclipsed entertainment lobbying. It also notes the role the internet played in calling attention to the bills, asking in the end, “if the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and Wikipedias are becoming new guardians of political accountability, how accountable are they?”

In the music biz — Digital Music News has a couple of charts. The first shows a breakdown of Warner Music Group’s revenue sources from the last quarter of 2011. Physical formats still account for 51% of revenues. The second shows the distribution of digital revenues from online independent music store CDBaby. Over three quarters of these revenues comes from iTunes, while all streaming services bring in less than 10%.

The Sheepdogs Prove The Power Of Major Labels — Says the New Rockstar Philosophy, “As a close friend watching The Sheepdogs play for years, it’s interesting to see how the world has latched on to them. They’ve been doing the same music for a while, but only since the involvement of the Major Labels are The Sheepdogs starting to get larger recognition for their sound. To me this is a clear sign of the power of Major Labels. For all the talk of the end of an era, the Major Labels still have a lot of cash, expertise, and relationships that get doors open. Major Labels can get you seen and heard.”

Introducing Fountain — This one is for geeks/screenwriters. John August and Stu Maschwitz announce the Fountain markup language that enables script writing in any text editor using straightforward syntax. The result is a platform independent, future-proof file format ideal for collaboration and working anywhere.

Reining in the Rhetoric on Copyright Reform — Barry Sookman expands on his recent Financial Post article dealing with recent comparisons between Canada’s Bill C-11 and SOPA. “While recent attempts by the usual suspects making hysterical predictions about copyright reform in Canada have been ratcheted up yet again, this time the claims are so outrageous that they can perhaps best be described as having “jumped the shark”.”

The Future for Television or Google Wants to Burn Your Remote: More Google Union-Busting — Then they came for the trade unionists… Chris Castle sheds light on Google and company’s efforts against entertainment industry unions like IATSE, AFTRA, DGA, and SAG.

What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You — Cary Sherman’s op-ed in the New York Times provided fodder for many online discussions this week (including this odd piece from the EFF that refers to the record industry as “Hollywood”). One of the most important points he raises: Google, Wikipedia, and other services used their platforms to argue against the bill. Television networks and other media outlets that supported the bill didn’t. Understanding why they didn’t is crucial to understanding the concerns over the tactics used by the internet platform giants.


  1. I say surprising because the funders and board members of the Sunlight Foundation include many who were active in the opposition to SOPA and PROTECT IP. []

Golan I & II

A year after the Court decided Eldred, another district court, in what would turn out to be the first step in a protracted journey back to the Supreme Court, was asked to apply the “traditional contours” test. In Golan v. Ashcroft,1 plaintiffs (Lessig’s clients) included artisans and businesses that published and performed works that were in the public domain. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, maintaining that § 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA)2 was unconstitutional. The statute restored copyright protection to foreign works whose authors had lost their copyrights due to failure to comply with certain formalities that had since been repealed. Plaintiffs argued that § 514 of the URAA altered copyright’s “traditional contours” and violated their First Amendment rights because they could no longer use certain works that had been pulled out of the public domain. The court held that plaintiffs had sufficiently distinguished the holding in Eldred so as to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Plaintiffs’ victory was short-lived, though, and in a lengthy opinion the district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court reasoned that “Congress has historically demonstrated little compunction about removing copyrightable materials from the public domain.”3 The record reflected that there were in fact many historical instances where public domain works had been granted copyright. Because of the idea/expression dichotomy, the court noted, only expressions were being restored to their authors—the ideas themselves were still public property. Considering the long string of practice for granting copyright protection to works in the public domain, the court rejected plaintiffs’ contention that copyright’s “traditional contours” had in fact been altered by doing the same thing here. The court, citing “the settled rule that private censorship via copyright enforcement does not implicate First Amendment concerns,”4 similarly rebuffed plaintiffs’ argument that having to contract for use of restored works posed too onerous a burden on their free speech rights. In the court’s opinion, while plaintiffs surely bore some free speech hardship because of § 514 of the URAA, such difficulties were an inherent feature of copyright law in general and therefore not actionable.

On appeal to the Tenth Circuit,5 plaintiffs’ luck changed. The court of appeals, after observing that the Supreme Court had not defined the “traditional contours” in Eldred, nonetheless definitively stated that “one of these traditional contours is the principle that once a work enters the public domain, no individual—not even the creator—may copyright it.”6 Moreover, the court reasoned that plaintiffs had cognizable and vested First Amendment interests in public domain works. Central to the Tenth Circuit’s analysis was the understanding that copyright’s “traditional contours” must include more than just the built-in free speech accommodations, i.e., the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense. The court concluded “that the traditional contours of copyright protection include the principle that works in the public domain remain there” and that § 514 of the URAA had transgressed that “critical boundary.”7 Furthermore, the circuit court disagreed with the district court’s contention that there was a tradition of removing works from the public domain, and it characterized whatever history of the practice that did exist as the exception and not the rule. The Tenth Circuit remanded the case to the district court with instructions to subject § 514 of the URAA to heightened First Amendment scrutiny, as commanded by the “traditional contours” test.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court began its analysis with the observation that § 514 of the URAA was a content-neutral regulation of speech because it could “be justified without reference to the content of the speech restricted.”8 Under the applicable standard of heightened scrutiny (here, intermediate scrutiny), the statute would be upheld only if it advanced an important governmental interest and did “not burden substantially more speech than necessary to further” that interest.9 After careful analysis, the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that while the government’s interests were sufficiently important, Congress nevertheless had burdened substantially more speech than was necessary in advancing those interests. The court limited its holding to only those parties that had already been exploiting the works while they were in the public domain—the so-called reliance parties. In the court’s view, those were the only parties with vested First Amendment rights that had been contravened when copyrights were restored in the works.

The parties cross-appealed to the Tenth Circuit.10 Plaintiffs argued that § 514 of the URAA should be struck down as unconstitutional on its face, meaning that it should be found to be unconstitutional not only for the reliance parties but for everyone else as well. The defendants of course disagreed, arguing that the statute was constitutional not only as-applied to the reliance parties but for everyone in general too. On this appeal, the “traditional contours” test was not in issue—the previous circuit panel had definitively applied the test and found that the statute failed it. Under the law of the case doctrine, this circuit panel was bound to follow the prior panel’s conclusion on that point. Recall that failure to satisfy the “traditional contours” test simply means that heightened First Amendment scrutiny will be applied to the statute, so the battle on this appeal was over whether § 514 of the URAA was violative of the First Amendment under this more-stringent standard of review.

The circuit court started its de novo review by agreeing with the district court that § 514 of the URAA was a content-neutral regulation of speech, thereby calling for intermediate scrutiny. In looking at the first prong, which requires the government to assert an important or substantial interest, the court had “no difficulty in concluding that the government’s interest in securing protections abroad for American copyright holders satisfies this standard.”11 The government had introduced sufficient evidence to show that by granting copyright protection to foreign works in the public domain in the United States, foreign countries would reciprocate by granting copyright protection to American works that were in the public domain abroad. Turning to the second prong, which requires that the regulation not burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the interest asserted, the circuit court reached the opposite conclusion than the district court. In doing so, the court of appeals found that the burdens inflicted by § 514 of the URAA on the reliance parties were congruent to the benefits afforded to American copyright holders since their works overseas would receive equal protections. The Tenth Circuit sided with defendants and reversed the district court below, holding that § 514 of the URAA was not unconstitutional under heightened scrutiny.

So to summarize: (1) the district court held that § 514 of the URAA didn’t alter copyright’s “traditional contours,” (2) the court of appeals reversed and held that it did, (3) the district court held that § 514 of the URAA didn’t pass heightened scrutiny, and (4) the court of appeals reversed and held that it did. A bit confusing, I know.

The “Traditional Contours” Test Defined

Plaintiffs petitioned for and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. In Golan v. Holder,12 the Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit below, starting with the observation that “some restriction on expression is the inherent and intended effect of every grant of copyright.”13 Despite the intrinsic conflict between the Copyright Clause and the First Amendment, said the Court, in the Framers’ view the two served the same goal of contributing to the marketplace of ideas. The Court then explained that the reference to the “traditional contours” in Eldred referred to only the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense, i.e., the free speech accommodations that are built-in to copyright law. And with that simple explanation, an almost decade-long confusion about what constitutes copyright’s “traditional contours” was laid to rest. The “traditional contours” test, then, may be stated as follows: If Congress did not alter the idea/expression dichotomy or the fair use defense when crafting a copyright statute, then a reviewing court faced with a First Amendment challenge to that statute does not apply heightened judicial scrutiny.

That the Tenth Circuit the first time around had completely misunderstood the “traditional contours” test was made explicit in a footnote: “On the initial appeal in this case, the Tenth Circuit gave an unconfined reading to our reference in Eldred to ‘traditional contours of copyright.’ That reading was incorrect, as we here clarify.”14 The Court continued its analysis by stating that here, as in Eldred, there was simply no call for the heightened review that petitioners were seeking. In the Court’s view (and understanding this point is critical to understanding Golan), burdening people’s communication of an author’s protected expression simply didn’t raise the same free speech concerns that are present when the government burdens people’s communication of facts or ideas. The Court reasoned, rather simply, that since the traditional safeguards of the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense had been left in place in drafting § 514 of the URAA, petitioners’ free speech interests were adequately protected. No further mitigation was necessary since the constitutional minimum requirements had been met.

The Court then turned to the argument that petitioners in this case were distinguishable from those in Eldred because they had enjoyed vested First Amendment rights in certain public domain works. Rejecting the argument that “the Constitution renders the public domain largely untouchable by Congress,” the Court accused petitioners of attempting “to achieve under the banner of the First Amendment what they could not win under the Copyright Clause.”15 The Court could find no historical or congressional practice, nor anything in the Court’s own jurisprudence, that showed that heightened scrutiny was warranted for the practice of restoring copyright protection for works that were in the public domain. The Court positively rejected petitioners’ argument that they, as members of the public using public domain works, had vested First Amendment rights in those works: “Anyone has free access to the public domain, but no one, after the copyright term has expired, acquires ownership rights in the once-protected works.”16

And with that, the Supreme Court shut down once and for all Lessig’s thirteen-year-long argument that copyright laws must give special solicitude to the First Amendment above and beyond the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense.

Closing Thoughts

Golan presents a great example of where simply labeling the Supreme Court’s holding as an affirmance of the court below misses the point. True, the Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit’s holding that § 514 of the URAA did not violate plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. But the Court arrived at that destination by taking a completely different route. The better view is that, as far as the First Amendment issues are concerned, the Supreme Court in Golan completely denunciated all of the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning despite affirming its ultimate holding. The fact that the court of appeals got the right answer is entirely undercut by the fact that they were answering the wrong question.

I do want to point out as well that I think people are apt to take the holding in Golan too far. Consider the copyright statutes that we looked at—the CTEA, the CRA, and § 514 of the URAA. The CTEA extended the copyright term by twenty years for certain works. The CRA removed the renewal requirement, thus extending the copyright term for certain works. And § 514 of the URAA extended the copyright term to certain works in the public domain. See the pattern? I think the “traditional contours” test is applicable only when Congress has defined the scope of a substantive copyright right, that is, when it has “secur[ed] for limited Times to Authors . . . the exclusive Right to their . . . Writings” as the Copyright Clause expressly provides Congress may do. This is why I think Lessig goes too far when he laments that the Court has “shut the door, finally and firmly, on any opportunity to meaningfully challenge a copyright statute constitutionally.” Unless it’s a copyright law that defines the scope of the substantive right—like, say, the copyright term—I think the Court has left the door wide open for meaningful constitutional challenges. For example, I would argue that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) falls outside the “traditional contours” test since it concerns enforcement of substantive copyright rights and not the scope of the rights themselves. That means SOPA wouldn’t get a free ride when challenged on First Amendment grounds.

The holding in Golan certainly reinforces the concept that “copyright has traditionally been viewed as an exception to the First Amendment.”17 But it’s clearly not a complete exception. As I mentioned at the outset, Lessig’s notion that copyright must give way to free speech has been proved true with a vengeance—that’s exactly what the “traditional contours” test tells us. Copyright is an exception to the First Amendment, but only because it already incorporates two very important free speech safeguards. Alter either safeguard, and a copyright law’s free speech exception would have to be reexamined. Many people, no doubt, are dubious that these built-in safeguards adequately protect our free speech interests. Indeed, much has been written in the past few decades questioning precisely that. What the Court lays to rest in Golan, I think, is the dispute over whether these doubts are properly framed as constitutional issues or simply policy choices. One can reasonably believe that greater consideration for free speech is needed when it comes to copyright laws (in fact, I share that view), but what the Court has now made clear is that the First Amendment doesn’t demand it.

The last point I’ll make is that the Supreme Court is telling us in Golan that those focusing on the inherent conflict between copyright and free speech in framing their constitutional arguments are missing the forest for the trees. While the “immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an author’s creative labor,” the fundamental purpose of copyright is “to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.”18 Thus the view espoused by the Court is that copyright and free speech are not at odds with each other in a zero-sum game where a benefit to one implies a detriment to the other. The philosophy behind the Copyright Clause “is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance public welfare through the talents of authors . . . .”19 In the Court’s view, in the Framers’ view, and in my view as well, the First Amendment and the Copyright Clause are complementary provisions promoting the same goal—the public good.

Follow me on Twitter: @devlinhartline


  1. Golan v. Ashcroft, 310 F.Supp.2d 1215 (D. Colo. 2004). []
  2. Uruguay Round Agreements Act, Pub.L. 103-465. []
  3. Golan v. Gonzales, 2005 WL 914754 (D. Colo. Apr. 20, 2005). []
  4. Id., at *17. []
  5. Golan v. Gonzales, 501 F.3d 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). []
  6. Id., at 1184. []
  7. Id., at 1189. []
  8. Golan v. Holder, 611 F.Supp.2d 1165, 1170 (D. Colo. 2009). []
  9. Id., at 1172. []
  10. Golan v. Holder, 609 F.3d 1076 (10th Cir. 2010). []
  11. Id., at 1084. []
  12. Golan v. Holder, 2012 WL 125436 (U.S. Jan. 18, 2012). []
  13. Id., at *13. []
  14. Id., at fn. 29. []
  15. Id., at *15. []
  16. Id., at *16. []
  17. Jennifer E. Rothman, Liberating Copyright: Thinking Beyond Free Speech, 95 Cornell L. Rev. 463, 479 (2010). []
  18. Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975). []
  19. Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 219 (1954). []

Today’s guest post comes from Devlin Hartline, a J.D. candidate at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law with an expected graduation date of May, 2012. His primary interests are in copyright, internet, and constitutional law. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Metairie, Louisiana. You can follow him on Twitter: @devlinhartline.

“Constitution time is over.”

For academic and self-proclaimed “copyright activist” Lawrence Lessig, January 18, 2012, represents more than just the day the internet stood up to copyright law. In his view, it’s also the day “the Supreme Court shut the door, finally and firmly, on any opportunity to meaningfully challenge a copyright statute constitutionally.” For it was on that day that the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Golan v. Holder,1 or as Lessig puts it, it’s the day the Court signaled to the copyright bar: “Constitution time is over.” Lessig’s defeatist attitude is understandable. He had spent the past thirteen years representing four different plaintiffs challenging various copyright laws on constitutional grounds. Two of the cases were even heard by the Supreme Court; all four cases ended in resounding defeat for Lessig’s various constitutional arguments.2 Upset with Congress’s treatment of copyright, it’s not surprising that Lessig would turn to the courts. To get a court to strike down a copyright statute, he had to constitutionalize the issue—courts simply aren’t in the business of second-guessing legislative choices unless those choices violate the Constitution. The problem for Lessig, though, was that the Constitution itself provides few limits on Congress’s power to create copyright laws. But “few limits” does not mean “no limits.”

One of Lessig’s major arguments was that a copyright law must give way to First Amendment concerns, and it’s that particular notion that I’ll focus on in this article. While Lessig may have been defeated on this argument in that he didn’t like where the Court ultimately drew the line between copyright and free speech, as we’ll see, he was certainly vindicated in that the Court definitively recognized that copyright must in fact significantly give way to free speech interests. One culmination of Lessig’s thirteen-year-long legal battle against copyright law in the federal courts is that the Supreme Court has given us a test to use in determining whether a copyright statute has run afoul of free speech—the “traditional contours” test. And contrary to Lessig’s complaint that this test forecloses meaningful First Amendment challenges to copyright, the test instead, I think, reasonably reflects the fact that free speech and copyright promote the same public good. This sentiment is reflected in something the Court said over two decades ago: “it should not be forgotten that the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.”3

There is no doubt that copyright, in some sense, burdens free speech. The First Amendment commands that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” At the same time, however, the Copyright Clause allows Congress to “secur[e] for limited Times to Authors . . . the exclusive Right to their . . . Writings.” But by creating a law that secures to an author a copyright in his work, Congress has inevitably created a law that abridges free speech. Copyright, just like any other type of personal property, provides its holder with the “right to exclude others from using his property.”4 It follows then that a copyright law burdens free speech since others are not free to speak that which a copyright protects. But, under the Constitution, how much can copyright burden free speech, exactly? Thanks to Lessig’s efforts, we now have the “traditional contours” test that answers just that question.

An Amorphous Test

In Eldred v. Ashcroft,5 the Supreme Court squarely addressed a First Amendment challenge to the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA).6 Lessig himself participated in the oral arguments before the Court. The CTEA provided for an additional twenty years of copyright protection for most works, even those that were currently under copyright. Petitioners (Lessig’s clients) included individuals and businesses who depended on works that had fallen into the public domain for their products or services. Petitioners argued that, but for the CTEA, they would have been able to exploit works that otherwise would be in the public domain. Therefore, by extending the copyright term for these works, Congress had impermissibly abridged petitioners’ free speech rights. In light of this perceived conflict, petitioners asked the Supreme Court to find the CTEA unconstitutional under heightened First Amendment judicial scrutiny. Heightened scrutiny simply refers to how important the legislature’s ends must be, and how well those ends must fit with the means chosen to accomplish them. The greater the scrutiny, the more likely it is that a statute will be struck down as unconstitutional. So the party challenging a statute almost always argues for greater scrutiny, while the defending party, naturally, argues the opposite.

The Court declined the invitation to apply heightened scrutiny, instead agreeing with respondents that none was needed. Said the Court: “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. Indeed, copyright’s purpose is to promote the creation and publication of free expression.”7 In the Court’s view, imposition of heightened judicial scrutiny was not necessary because copyright law already contains two built-in First Amendment accommodations. The first, known as the idea/expression dichotomy,8 “distinguishes between ideas and expression and makes only the latter eligible for copyright protection.”9 The second, known as the fair use defense,10 “allows the public to use not only facts and ideas contained in a copyrighted work, but also expression itself in certain circumstances.”11 According to the Court, these built-in accommodations strike a good balance between copyright and free speech since they allow for the free flow of ideas while providing only partial protection for an author’s particular expression.

The Court explained further that 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.”12 Petitioners’ asserted right to speak other people’s copyrighted works did raise First Amendment concerns, said the Court, but these concerns were adequately addressed by copyright’s built-in free speech protections. And then, in what can be described as an afterthought, the Supreme Court announced the “traditional contours” test: “But when, as in this case, Congress has not altered the traditional contours of copyright protection, further First Amendment scrutiny is unnecessary.”13 The “traditional contours” test, then, is a simple conditional statement: If Congress did not alter copyright’s “traditional contours” when crafting a copyright statute, then a reviewing court faced with a First Amendment challenge to that statute does not apply heightened judicial scrutiny. In other words, a court will not have to look at how important the ends are, or how closely those ends fit the means chosen to accomplish them, so long as copyright’s “traditional contours” have not been altered in creating the statute. Lower courts sorely needed a test like this to apply when faced with a free speech challenge to a copyright statute. The problem, unfortunately, was that no one knew what these “traditional contours” were because the Court didn’t really say. How could courts apply the test if they didn’t even know when the test applied? And what exactly is (or isn’t) included within these “traditional contours”?

Kahle Tests The Waters

The year after the Supreme Court opinion in Eldred was handed down, a district court in California attempted to apply the newly-minted “traditional contours” test. In Kahle v. Ashcroft,14 plaintiffs (Lessig’s clients), including the Internet Archive, were in the business of taking works that had fallen into the public domain and posting them on the Internet. They brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the Copyright Renewal Act (CRA)15 and the CTEA on First Amendment grounds. The CRA removed the renewal requirement for works created between 1964 and 1977, and it provided that the copyrights for these works would be automatically renewed for a second term. Before the CRA, these works would have only received a second term if their owners had filed for a renewal. Now, they went full-term without the owners doing anything. The CTEA, as we just saw in Eldred, added an additional twenty years of copyright protection to these now automatically-renewing works. Plaintiffs argued that, but for the CRA and the CTEA, the vast majority of the works created between 1964 and 1977 would have fallen into the public domain on January 1, 2004. Rather than a conditional copyright regime that required authors to take affirmative steps to extend the copyright term for their works, the challenged statutes created an unconditional copyright regime where copyright protections were extended automatically. This transition from a conditional to an unconditional system—in effect, from one that was “opt in” to one that was “opt out”—argued plaintiffs, altered copyright’s “traditional contours,” thereby necessitating heightened judicial scrutiny under the “traditional contours” test.

The intuitiveness of this argument is undeniable: Whereas a copyright owner once had to renew his registration to get a second term, now he had to do nothing to obtain the same result (plus an additional 20 years of protection). For parties, like plaintiffs, waiting for these works to fall into the public domain so they could use them, this change was understandably seen as an alteration of copyright’s “traditional contours.” The district court didn’t agree, and it started its analysis with the observation that the Supreme Court hadn’t actually identified the protections it considered to be within copyright’s “traditional contours.” In fact, the court noted, the phrase “traditional contours” did not appear in any other reported decision prior to its use in Eldred. The court deduced that the two concepts recognized by the Court, namely the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense, related only to the scope of copyright protection. Contrasting that with the procedural steps now being challenged, the court reasoned that removing the renewal requirement did not alter the scope of the copyright protection or the copyright holder’s substantive rights. As such, the court held that the challenged statutes did not alter copyright’s “traditional contours.” For the district court, the “traditional contours” simply were not affected by changes in copyright procedures, like removing the renewal requirement.

On appeal to the Ninth Circuit,16 plaintiffs fared no better. The circuit court accepted plaintiffs’ argument that abolishing the renewal requirement would increase the copyright term for the works in question while correspondingly decreasing the number of works entering the public domain. Nonetheless, the court of appeals found that automatically renewing a copyright’s registration was qualitatively no different than extending a copyright’s term, and the Supreme Court’s holding in Eldred had in effect already answered plaintiffs’ challenge: If extending copyrights for existing works was constitutional there, then automatically renewing and thus extending copyrights for existing works was also constitutional here. So long as “traditional First Amendment safeguards such as fair use and the idea/expression dichotomy” vindicate the plaintiffs’ affected free speech interests, said the court, “extending existing copyrights . . . does not alter the traditional contours of copyright protection.”17 So for the Ninth Circuit, automatically renewing a copyright was no different than extending a copyright’s term, and plaintiffs’ clever framing of the issue fell flat. While the Supreme Court in Eldred did not define what it meant by copyright’s “traditional contours,” the Court’s decision did make clear that extending a copyright’s term leaves the “traditional contours” intact—that was the exact issue in Eldred. And once the circuit court framed the issue as one of simply extending a copyright’s term, plaintiffs’ game was over under the Court’s prior holding. Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, but the petition for certiorari was denied.18

Coming up in Part II: Golan I & II, The “Traditional Contours” Test Defined, and Closing Thoughts.


  1. Golan v. Holder, 10-545, 2012 WL 125436 (U.S. Jan. 18, 2012). []
  2. See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003); Luck’s Music Library, Inc. v. Gonzales, 407 F.3d 1262 (D.C. Cir. 2005); Kahle v. Gonzales, 487 F.3d 697 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 128 S.Ct. 958 (2008); Golan v. Holder, 10-545, 2012 WL 125436 (U.S. Jan. 18, 2012). []
  3. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 558 (1985). []
  4. Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U.S. 123, 127 (1932); see also Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 454 F.Supp.2d 966, 997 (C.D. Cal. 2006) (“The right to exclude is inherent in the grant of a copyright . . . .”). []
  5. Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003). []
  6. Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, Pub.L. 105–298 (amending, inter alia, 17 U.S.C. §§ 302, 304). []
  7. Eldred, 537 U.S. at 219. []
  8. The idea/expression dichotomy is codified in 17 U.S.C. § 201(b) (“In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”). []
  9. Eldred, 537 U.S. at 219. []
  10. The fair use defense is codified in 17 U.S.C. § 107 (“Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright…”). []
  11. Eldred, 537 U.S. at 219. []
  12. Id., at 221. []
  13. Id. []
  14. Kahle v. Ashcroft, 2004 WL 2663157 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 19, 2004). []
  15. Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, Pub.L. 102-307. []
  16. Kahle v. Gonzales, 487 F.3d 697 (9th Cir. 2007). []
  17. Id., at 700 (internal quotation marks omitted). []
  18. Kahle v. Gonzales, 128 S.Ct. 958 (2008) (denying cert.). []

What do Record Labels Actually Do? You’d be Surprised — “For all the cynicism about money-grabbing majors, labels still offer artists the security they need to produce their best work,” says Helienne Lindvall of the Guardian. “It’s true the internet has been brilliant for artists in many ways, giving them an alternative route to make contact with and sell directly to fans, but record labels do much more than distribute to retailers.”

5 Ways Piracy is Changing — Jonathan Bailey offers some thoughts on how the Megaupload indictment has affected the landscape of online infringement. “Piracy has been a part of being a content creator since day one and it isn’t going to go away. However, with time and effort, it may become more of a nuisance than a major concern and that, in the long run, should be the end goal. Not the elimination of piracy, but the mitigation of it.”

Bill C-11, “Digital Locks”, and Copyright Reform: What Kind of Business Models Do We Want to Encourage? — James Gannon poses this question in light of Canada’s efforts to update its copyright law. “While laws that would legalize modchip manufacturers and file-sharing websites might be popular with certain segments of the population, they are still bad economic policy. These are not business models that lead to sustainable, job-heavy enterprises; these are not business models that provide any rewards to artists and creative workers,” says Gannon. “When copyright opponents claim that we shouldn’t amend our laws in order to support outdated business models, I couldn’t agree more.”

Judge Declares Batmobile is Subject to Copyright — Why so serious? A federal judge denied a motion to dismiss a claim of copyright infringement against a defendant for creating replicas of the Batmobile. That doesn’t necessarily mean infringement, just that, at this stage, such a claim is plausible — which is not a terribly novel decision, since courts have long held that artistic elements of functional objects can be protected. But it does make for good water-cooler discussion.

Lobbyists 1, Internet 0: An Alternative Take on SOPA — It’s interesting to read accounts of the SOPA blackout that seem to take the view that opposition arouse wholly spontaneously. David Rodnitzky doesn’t buy it, and offers a look behind the scenes that is comprehensive yet still only the tip of the iceberg. “The notion that this was a battle of David vs. Goliath – the unwashed masses versus powerful Hollywood lobbyists – is a fiction. The outrage against SOPA simply would not have occurred without well-funded, well-organized efforts led by lobbyists and lawyers at major Internet sites.”

2Cellos – the artists behind ‘Glee’s’ ‘Smooth Criminal’ cover — There was something incredible about the two cellists providing the music for one of the songs on Glee this week, so I looked them up and discovered 2Cellos, a very talented duo. Good stuff.

Following the shutdown of Megaupload, Internet folk hero Jonathan Coulton asked:

[W]here is the proof that piracy causes economic harm to anyone? Looking at the music business, yes profits have gone down ever since Napster, but has anyone effectively demonstrated the causal link between that and piracy? There are many alternate theories (people buying songs and not whole albums, music sucking more, niches and indie acts becoming more viable, etc.). The Swiss government did a study and determined that unauthorized downloading (which 1/3 of their citizens do) does not create any loss in revenue for the entertainment industry. I remember but am now too lazy to find links to other studies that say the same thing. I can’t think of any study I’ve seen that demonstrates the opposite. If there is one, please point me to it.

Now, before addressing Coulton’s remarks, I want to be clear — since The Internet can be touchy about such things — that I’m not picking on Coulton; I like some of his music.

Having said that, his remarks about the evidence concerning piracy are quite common. Facts and evidence are important to discussions of copyright policy, and it’s important that we understand exactly what those facts are.

Piracy Causes Harm

As for pointing to studies that demonstrate the harm of unauthorized downloading, I would point to the same link Coulton provided. The Swiss government report1 — not, technically, a study — cites an academic literature review that points to not only one such study but fourteen.

The review, The Economics of Music File Sharing – A Literature Overview, by Peter Tschmuck (Microsoft Word version here), examines 22 studies which look at the effects of filesharing on the music industry. Because some are skeptical of industry generated studies, it should be pointed out that all the studies here are independent, academic studies — working papers, academic journal articles, and dissertations. Of these 22 studies, 14 — roughly two-thirds — conclude that unauthorized downloads have a “negative or even highly negative impact” on recorded music sales.2

Studies since Tschmuck’s only confirm these findings. One notable contribution is economist Stan Liebowitz’s study The Metric is the Message: How Much of the Decline in Sound Recording Sales is Due to File-Sharing? released in November 2011. In it, Liebowitz translates the conclusions of existing studies on the effects of unauthorized downloads on recorded music sales into a common metric to answer the question posed in his title.

His conclusion is stunning: “file-sharing has caused the entire decline in sound recording sales that has occurred since the ascendance of Napster.”

Looking at the available evidence, one thing is clear. It is a fact that there are multiple academic studies that show a significant negative effect on music sales caused by unauthorized downloading, and this conclusion has been reached by a significant majority of researchers. Coulton is not alone in being unaware of these findings — you don’t have to look far to find those who don’t know about the existence of these studies.

But there they are.

Enforcement Boosts Legal Alternatives to Piracy

The fact that evidence backs up one of the central premises of copyright law is, however, only a precursor to the real question: what, if anything, should be done to address the harm from online copyright infringement? The role of law in answering this question attracts perhaps the most heated debate. That leads to the next question: does copyright enforcement work?

Some point to the 400+ page Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report, released in 2011 by the Social Science Research Council and funded by the Ford Foundation, as providing evidence that enforcement “doesn’t work.” But that’s not what the report concludes, as the editor of the report itself, Joe Karaganis, pointed out in a Torrentfreak article last week:

We talk about the efficacy of enforcement at some length in our Media Piracy report. Many readers have concluded that enforcement doesn’t work.  But that isn’t what we say.  We say, rather, that we’ve found no evidence that it has worked.

It’s also important to note what the report researchers looked at to come to that conclusion: the research was primarily qualitative rather than quantitative, relying on interviews, focus groups, and analysis of media reporting.

That said, this is but one study. Other researchers have found evidence that enforcement has led to increases in legal purchases of music.

In a paper released last week, Dr. George Barker of Australian National University analyzed the data from a 2006 Industry Canada survey to conclude that “P2P downloads have strong negative effects on legitimate music purchases” and “stronger copyright laws would substantially increase music purchases and music industry sales revenues.”

These findings are confirmed by another recent study by four economists from Wellesley College and Carnegie Mellon University, which determined that France’s graduated response program (Hadopi) caused “iTunes song and album sales to increase by 22.5% and 25% respectively relative to” countries in a control group that hadn’t enacted graduated response programs.

A Multipronged Approach

The idea that there is no evidence showing a harm from online piracy is erroneous, as is the idea that there is no evidence that people will turn to legal alternatives with more effective enforcement.

So where does that lead us?

I think it’s incorrect to draw the conclusion that better enforcement of copyright equals more enforcement. That’s not true in any area of law, including copyright.

But at the same time, I think it’s incorrect to ignore the evidence. There are those who say piracy is only a business model problem, or a marketing problem, and enforcement should play zero role.

This puts copyright at odds with most other issues. Take driving, for example: we prefer to minimize the harm that comes from accidents. To that end, we build safer cars, we have driver education, but we also have traffic laws and cops to enforce those laws.

There’s nothing inherent to copyright law that warrants an exception to this general practice. The challenges faced by creators and businesses that invest in creativity in the online environment are myriad and require continuing innovation to craft sustainable business models and take advantage of emerging technologies. But they also require attention to legal protection of private rights to ensure that the public continues to benefit from the talents and creativity of authors and artists.


  1. The report is in German. I haven’t tracked down an English version yet, but you can read a Google-translated version here. []
  2. Three of the studies found no significant impact while the remaining five found a positive impact. The literature review looked at a 23rd study but did not classify it here since the author presented a mixed conclusion: the overall effect of unauthorized downloads is insignificant, but for unknown artists, there is a “strongly negative” effect on recorded music sales. []

The Truth Behind Google’s Copyright-Bills Hysteria — Great piece on the hyperbole that became the norm over recent legislation. “The tech industry has demonstrated great political clout through the mobilization of its users and fan base; and the industry lobby, led by Google, will say and do pretty much anything to advance its commercial interests.”

The MTP Interview: Indie Film Maker David Newhoff — Chris Castle sits down with the creator of Gone Elvis and talks about indie filmmaking and the challenges and opportunities provided by the internet.

Wright & Diveley on Expert Agencies & Generalist Judges — When Senator Wyden announced the OPEN Act, he announced that one of its advantages was putting the adjudication of sites dedicated to piracy “in the hands of the International Trade Commission – versus a diversity of magistrate judges not versed in Internet and trade policy.” But is this an advantage? This new paper examines the general claim that administrative judges produce better decisions than generalist judges. The conclusion: “there is little empirical basis” for these claims.

Academic publishing is full of problems; lets get them right — The Copyright Librarian (Nancy Sims of the Univ of Minnesota) gives a comprehensive overview of how academic database JSTOR works, along with a look at some of the challenges facing academic publishing. Great read.

Creative Commons for Music: What’s the Point? — “Without a real enforcement mechanism, CC licenses are all little more than labels, like the garment care hieroglyphics mandated by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States … The practical value of CC seems to be concentrated in business-to-business content licensing agreements, where corporations need to take more responsibility for observing licensing terms and CC’s ready-made licenses make it easy for them to do so.”

The Summers’ Tale — Nicholas Carr rebuts recent statements by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers concerning 21st century learning. “This idea that knowledge can be separated from facts – that we can know without knowing – really needs to be challenged before it gains any further currency.”

Who is the A$%#hole? — Music information researcher Paul Lamere, who has long done exciting work in the field, remarks on yet another “enlightened” blog post in the wake of SOPA called Can we kill the music business too? Says Lamere, “James is certainly right – you can’t have a great music startup without great music, but he goes off the rails if he thinks that companies protecting themselves from theft infringement are assholes. A music startup, or any business should not be able to build a business on top of  someone else’s IP without compensating them for the use. It is easy to build a company that makes money by giving away someone else’s property. But it is not legal.”

Last week’s indictment and arrest of Megaupload and seven of its execs added a strong dose of drama to an already dramatic couple of days in the copyright arena.

The US Department of Justice calls this “among the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States,” though I wouldn’t be surprised if it is actually the largest such case — I’m not aware of any larger criminal actions.1 No doubt the proceedings will be followed closely by many over the next few months.

Already, the arrest has had a sharp effect online, with other cyberlockers scaling back or shutting down altogether.

While the federal government’s action against Megaupload — which had been in the works since March 2010 (months before ICE even began its Operation In Our Sites) — will obviously have many ramifications for the future of copyright law online, I wanted to focus specifically on one of the legal issues that may be implicated in the case.

Does the DMCA apply to criminal infringement?

Perhaps the most novel legal issue that may arise during the Megaupload proceedings is whether the DMCA safe harbors provide the defendants with any defense.

As an initial matter, it seems to be an open question whether the DMCA safe harbors are available to any criminal defendant. The U.S. appears to adopt the view that they aren’t.2

The indictment notes without further explanation that “Internet providers gain a safe harbor under the DMCA from civil copyright infringement suits in the United States if they meet certain criteria [emphasis added],” although it subsequently offers reasons why the Megaupload defendants wouldn’t qualify for the defense anyway.

The language of the statute plausibly supports this view. Though it references only “infringement of copyright” — which could include both criminal and civil infringement — it merely shields service providers from “liab[ility] for monetary relief, or [in some circumstances] injunctive or other equitable relief.” This is civil lawsuit language — criminal defendants are punished with fines, not liable for monetary relief.

In addition, criminal liability would seem to preclude safe harbor protection solely as a matter of common sense. Criminal copyright infringement requires willful infringement. The DMCA safe harbor only protects service providers from liability for passive infringement. If the evidence shows that a defendant was willfully infringing copyrighted works beyond a reasonable doubt, it doesn’t seem possible that that same defendant could ever meet the requirements for safe harbor protection under the statute.

Deduplication and the DMCA

Regardless, the indictment alleges that even if the DMCA safe harbors are available to criminal defendants, the Megaupload defendants failed to satisfy the conditions for eligibility.

Among other things, Megaupload used deduplication, a common technical process used by online services to reduce the amount of storage needed for data. In Capitol Records v. MP3Tunes, Capitol argued that a similar process made the defendant liable for public performances of sound recordings, but the Southern District Court of New York disagreed, calling it a “standard data compression algorithm that eliminates redundant digital data” that didn’t give rise to liability.

It was a small win for MP3Tunes, however, since the court held that its failure to remove the actual files stored on its service when it received a DMCA takedown notice, rather than just links to the files, disqualified it from safe harbor protection.

The indictment alleges that Megaupload operated much the same way. When a user uploads a file already present on the system, “the system provides a new and unique URL link to the new user that is pointed to the original file already present on the server. If there is more than one URL link to a file, then any attempt by the copyright holder to terminate access to the file using the Abuse Tool or other DMCA takedown request will fail because the additional access links will continue to be available.”

If the Eastern District of Virginia follows the same reasoning as the MP3Tunes court, this doesn’t necessarily mean Megaupload is ultimately liable, but it would mean that it wouldn’t be protected by the DMCA.

I don’t know for certain how big a role the DMCA safe harbor will play in the case; only time will tell. But I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the legal developments of what promises to be a watershed moment in copyright history.


  1. The closest seems to be Operation Safehaven in 2003. []
  2. The U.S. is not alone in adopting this view. See, for example, Eric Goldman, A Road to No Warez, 82 Or. L. Rev. 369, 425 (2003), “In the DMCA, Congress putatively provided some facilitators a safe harbor from civil liability for user-caused infringement [emphasis added].” []
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