By , September 24, 2010.

WARNING: unbalanced footnote start tag short code found.

If this warning is irrelevant, please disable the syntax validation feature in the dashboard under General settings > Footnote start and end short codes > Check for balanced shortcodes.

Unbalanced start tag short code found before:

“One such example of the relevance of this distinction regarding the First Amendment and copyright is provided by Mark Lemley and Eugene Volokh, who agree that “there’s no First Amendment problem” for preliminary injunctions in “piracy and other ‘easy’ cases”…”

The First Amendment is perhaps the most famous part of the Constitution. Defending People’s blogger Mark Bennett ran a tally of how many times each article and amendment (of the ten included in the Bill of Rights) in the Constitution was specifically mentioned in the week leading up to Constitution Day; the First Amendment was mentioned by bloggers nearly as many times as all others combined. In the words of the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, the Amendment “reflects vital attributes of the American character,” “is the cornerstone of the nation’s liberty,” and “is known and cherished by virtually all citizens.”

It may come as a surprise then, that very few cases concerning the First Amendment arose in the first hundred or so years of its existence. It wasn’t until after World War I that the Supreme Court began to develop many of the free speech doctrines we see today. ((The Oxford Companion cites Justices Holmes’ and Brandeis’ dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) as sowing the “kernels of modern free speech doctrine.”))

What does this have to do with copyright? Well, if you take a closer look, you can see an inherent tension between the First Amendment and copyight law. The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting freedom of speech; copyright restricts the ability of a person to “speak” using the words of another. ((I use the terms ‘speak’ and ‘words’ here in a very broad sense, as copyright protection extends to subject matter beyond the written word.))

Like the development of modern free speech doctrines, this recognition of a conflict between the First Amendment and copyright law is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until about the 1960s when the idea began to receive attention from legal scholars. ((See, e.g., Melville Nimmer, Does Copyright Abridge the First Amendment Guarantees of Free Speech and Press?, 17 UCLA L. Rev. 1180 (1969); Lionel Sobel, Copyright and the First Amendment: A Gathering Storm?, 19 Copyright Law Symposium (ASCAP) 43 (1971) (predicting a “coming clash between ‘free speech and press’ principles and copyright clause exclusive-rights principles.”)) It wasn’t until 1985 that the “kernels” of the modern doctrines addressing the tension between the First Amendment and copyright law were sown by the Supreme Court, in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises. In 2003, in Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court fleshed out the current state of the law concerning the relationship between the First Amendment and copyright.

Simply put, the Court said, First Amendment concerns are adequately addressed by “copyright’s built-in free speech safeguards.” It noted two of those safeguards: the “idea/expression dichotomy” and the doctrine of fair use. It also suggested that there are supplemental safeguards, like copyright law’s exceptions for libraries and archives.

Criticisms of this approach began in earnest after Harper & Row and multiplied in the wake of Eldred. ((See footnote 2 of Alan Garfield, The Case for First Amendment Limits on Copyright Law, for a sampling of several dozen books and articles exploring the subject.)) The overall theme is that copyright’s safeguards are not, in fact, adequate to address First Amendment concerns – specifically in cases of what I label “creative infringement.” ((One such example of the relevance of this distinction regarding the First Amendment and copyright is provided by Mark Lemley and Eugene Volokh, who agree that “there’s no First Amendment problem” for preliminary injunctions in “piracy and other ‘easy’ cases” of copyright infringement. Freedom of Speech and Injunctions in Intellectual Property Cases (1998). But free speech concerns have also been raised in cases of “consumptive infringement” – albeit on issues outside the scope of copyright law. ((See the EFF’s amicus brief in Achte-Nuente v. Does for one such example.))

But something is missing in the discussion about copyright and the First Amendment. For all the attention given to the First Amendment concerns of alleged infringers, there is scant attention devoted to the First Amendment concerns of infringees – artists and creators.

Artistic Expression and the First Amendment

Part of this lack of attention stems from how the subject matter of copyright – artistic expression – is viewed. As constitutional scholar Sheldon Nahmod states, “Artistic expression has been assigned a derivative and second-class status in the views of many first amendment thinkers, the Supreme Court, and other courts.” ((Nahmod, Artistic Expression and Aesthetic Theory: The Beautiful, the Sublime and the First Amendment, Wisconsin Law Review (1987).)) Much First Amendment scholarship focuses on protection of political speech, with other forms of speech – like artistic expression or commercial speech – relegated to the margins of the discussion.

This slighting of artistic expression in First Amendment theory is not historically unusual; many philosophic schools of thought have placed relatively little importance on the role of art in society. Some have been downright skeptical of artistic expression. Nahmod notes that, “According to Plato, the state must control art for the good of the society as a whole. Otherwise, art threatens the stability of the state.” ((Nahmod, p. 227)) He adds that contemporaries of Marx, too, “are so convinced of art’s influence that they view art as an appropriate subject for state control.” ((Nahmod, p. 224))

Artistic expression has been subjected to censorship in the US throughout its history, with restrictions largely aimed at sexual content. Book bans are not unheard of; the film industry has a storied past involving first local government ratings boards and, later, voluntary industry ratings systems. Industry groups play a role in protecting the slighted First Amendment rights of artists and creators. The RIAA states that part of is its mission is working to protect the “First Amendment rights of artists and music labels”; lest the more cynical readers think this is just PR lip-service, I point out the amicus brief filed just last week by the MPAA, RIAA, and other industry groups arguing that California’s recent law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors is unconstitutional.

But artistic expression can serve other purposes that make it, even absent any objectionable content, unworthy of more than second-class status in scholarly discussion. It can often be used as entertainment, a diversion from the drudgery of ordinary life. Here, we can draw analogies between artistic expression as entertainment and other forms of entertainment throughout history to see that this low opinion of artistic expression is not an anomaly. Sports have, at various times, been the subject of regulation or outright banning by governments. In England during the Middle Ages, soccer, bowling, golf, and other sports were the subject of bans at various times. Often, these bans reflected the idea that these sports diverted young men’s energy away from military training and were thus a threat to law and order. ((Andrew Pittman, The Interaction of Sport and Law: Where Has it Been, Where is it Now, and Where is it Going?, 2 Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport 64 (1992).))

Despite its at-times uncomfortable fit within First Amendment theory and a general snubbery throughout history, artistic expression flourishes in the US. Movies and television shows created here are watched around the world. Jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop have all arisen within the US. As a result of all of this, artistic expression in the US can sometimes find itself in an odd position. For example, in the late 80s and early 90s, several record store clerks were arrested for selling 2 Live Crew albums to minors; ((Steve Jones, Ban(ned) in the USA: Popular Music and Censorship, 15 Journal of Communication Inquiry 73 (1991).)) in 1994, the highest court in the US upheld that same group’s right to release a ribald, dirty parody of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman as fair use. ((Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 US 569 (1994).))

Artistic Expression, the First Amendment, and Copyright

Attention to artistic expression’s place within First Amendment theory remains underdeveloped. However, within discussions of copyright law, the role of artists’ First Amendment rights is practically ignored.

What do I mean by the role of artists’ First Amendment rights within copyright law? Courts that have addressed the tension between the First Amendment have, as I stated above, said that copyright law has built in safeguards to protect the First Amendment rights of those who make use of copyrighted works. But there’s another side of the coin. In Harper & Row – repeated later in Eldred – the Supreme Court declared that “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression.” ((471 US 558)) The metaphor adopted by the court explains how copyright and the First Amendment accomplish the same goal – the dissemination of new ideas – through distinct means. Copyright pushes the dissemination – by providing an incentive to create new expression – while the First Amendment removes the obstacles in the way of that dissemination.

In many ways, the copyright incentive provides the most free method to spread new ideas. We don’t have to rely on the wealthy to fund whatever expression captures their fancy. We don’t have to rely on government to fund whatever expression it deems serves the state. Instead, we have a society where the values of artistic expression – as beauty, sublime, frivolity, or entertainment – and the value of artistic expression is determined solely by its members and the market. Patrick Ross, of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, puts it this way:

Our culture is remarkably vibrant and expressive, and is consumed around the world (even if many of those global consumers enjoy deriding our culture while consuming it). We embrace freedom of expression. We don’t burn down buildings when someone publishes a cartoon we find offensive. A bookstore can display the latest David McCullough biography beside a paperback collection of bathroom jokes. In fact, our culture seems pretty indestructible (we’ve survived the lip-synching scandals of Milli Vanilli and Ashlee Simpson, after all). While there will always be those who appoint themselves guardians and protectors of our culture, we can recognize that they aren’t truly needed. That is, they aren’t needed as long as artists retain their longstanding role in the culture. Artists, through the flexible exercise of their rights bundles, allow the culture to be enriched. No corporation can lock that culture down, and no p2p pirate can significantly erode that culture, as long as society collectively thanks its artists by respecting property rights.

But you won’t find much discussion of copyright’s role in the dissemination of new ideas when First Amendment concerns are raised in the context of copyright law. The “engine of free expression” metaphor is mentioned only in passing, ignored, or even dismissed as a “judicial sound bite.” ((Michael D. Birnhack, The Copyright Law and Free Speech Affair: Making-Up and Breaking-Up, Idea: Journal of Law & Technology 43 (2003): 233.)) That’s just wrong. In any case of “creative infringement,” there are two sides to the “free expression” coin. Any discussion of free expression rights which focuses on the rights of only one side (the alleged infringer) while ignoring the other (the infringee) is incomplete.


  1. For a moment there I thought you were going to spot the obvious conflict between the individual’s natural liberty and copyright’s derogation from that of the natural right to copy (in order to create a transferable privilege) INCLUDING that of the author.

    The author has also lost the right to speak their own words.

    They may retain the privilege to speak their own words, but they are EXPECTED to transfer this privilege to an immortal publishing corporation for the exploitation of the monopoly – with the prospect of something in return (if the author has the fortune to a contract where such prospect is likely).

    Have you not come across this atrocious predicament where an author is no longer able to publish or speak their own words without permission from their publisher?

    Even if you can hire a sophist to come up with some idea/expression duality/dichotomy to mitigate recognition of copyright as a derogation of everyone else’s right, you should at least grind to a halt at the author’s alienation from their liberty to speak their own words.

  2. But you won’t find much discussion of copyright’s role in the dissemination of new ideas when First Amendment concerns are raised in the context of copyright law. The “engine of free expression” metaphor is mentioned only in passing, ignored, or even dismissed as a “judicial sound bite.”

    I think that your conclusion misses the mark. Indeed, those who raise First Amendment objections to copyright’s current scope base their arguments, in large part, on the claim that copyright has expanded in a way that calls into question whether it actually serves as an “engine of free expression,” or whether it stifles important creative speech. At the heart of these claims is that the copyright balance has shifted too far in one direction, resulting in a system that affords rights holders with so much control over their work that it inhibits important creative secondary uses. I am hard pressed to think of a single case involving copyright and the First Amendment where the “dissemination of new ideas” is not a central theme. From Eldred v. Ashcroft to Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, and Golan v. Gonzales/Holder to Suntrust v. Houghton Mifflin, all have focused on the interrelationship between copyright and the dissemination of new ideas.

    In regards to your concern that the engine metaphor has been reduced to a sound bite, I would merely point out that it is truly a concern shared by those seeking to challenge perceived expansions of copyright. It is important to realize that the Constitution’s grant of authority to Congress to promulgate IP laws is grounded on it — Art. 1 Sec. 8 Cl. 8 gives Congress the power to pass laws that will “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” A central argument in Lessig’s argument that the CTEA should be subjected to First Amendment review was that extending the term of copyright retroactively could not possibly promote expression. Lessig argued that “promote the progress” should be viewed as a substantive limit on Congress’ power to pass copyright laws. Said another way, Lessig argued that copyright’s capacity to serve as an “engine of free expression” should play a central role in the debate.

    I would like to thank you for this blog. I have truly enjoyed reading your thoughtful posts in recent weeks. I hope that my comment is taken in the spirit of lively discussion, and not perceived as a slight.



  3. It is important to realize that the Constitution’s grant of authority to Congress to promulgate IP laws is grounded on it — Art. 1 Sec. 8 Cl. 8 gives Congress the power to pass laws that will “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

    People assume the clause empowers Congress to grant the privileges of copyright and patent.

    If “Art. 1 Sec. 8 Cl. 8 gives Congress the power to pass laws that will “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” it might be argued that making laws that permit the enslaving of artists and scientists in intellectual labour camps might cause such progress.

    Art. 1 Sec. 8 Cl. 8 actually empowers Congress to pass law that SECURES the individual’s natural exclusive right to their intellectual work. Progress is the expected epiphenomenon of such securing, not the criterion sanctioning any law.

    No constitution concerned with the liberty of its citizens, nor any Constitutional clause can empower Congress to derogate from the individual’s liberty whether for commercial privilege, incentivising monopoly or anything else.

    See my comments to Seth King and the Daily Anarchist on Intellectual Property.

  4. thanks for the post

  5. Pingback: The Thrill Of A Customized Harley Davidson Motorcycle | Motorbike Pants

  6. Pingback: The Chilling Effect of Copyright Infringement | Copyhype

  7. Pingback: Speech Interests of Creators | Copyhype