Court Rules Part Of Copyright Act Unconstitutional

from the wow dept

A year and a half ago, we were quite surprised when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals actually sided with Larry Lessig, concerning how a part of copyright law that pulled foreign works out of the public domain was potentially unconstitutional. This was in the “Golan case,” the third of three big copyright cases Lessig had championed. The appeals court had sent the case back to the lower court, and that lower court has now decided that, indeed, a trade agreement (URAA) that pulled foreign content out of the public domain is unconstitutional as it violates the First Amendment. While it may seem narrowly focused, this is the first case that has successfully challenged a part of copyright law as being unconstitutional. The ruling will almost certainly be appealed, so it’s not over yet — but it’s still a rare and important win for those who are fighting to keep copyright law from destroying the public domain.

The specifics may seem a bit down in the legal weeds, but they’re quite important. In the famous Eldred case, which challenged the constitutionality of continual copyright extension, the Supreme Court held that this was within Congress’ purview, so long as it didn’t muck with “the traditional contours of copyright law.” The two later cases that Lessig was involved in both focused on this claim, trying to note that changes in the law did not, in fact, stick with the traditional contours of copyright law, and in removing content from the public domain actually violated First Amendment rights. In this case, the plaintiffs had relied on previously public domain works, that were suddenly pulled back under copyright by this treaty. They argued that taking content back out of the public domain went against the traditional contours of copyright law. While the lower court initially disagreed, the appeals court reversed the decision, and sent it back to the lower court — noting that since the traditional contours of copyright law had been changed, the new law had to be reviewed as to whether or not it violated the First Amendment.

This latest ruling said that, yes, it appears that it did in fact violate the First Amendment — pointing out that while Congress did need to comply with international treaties, it did not have to do so in the way it did here (i.e., it could have created an exception for those who were already making use of these works in the public domain):

Congress has a legitimate interest in complying with the terms of the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention, however, affords each member nation discretion to restore the copyrights of foreign authors in a manner consistent with that member nation’s own body of copyright law. In the United States, that body of law includes the bedrock principle that works in the public domain remain in the public domain. Removing works from the public domain violated Plaintiffs’ vested First Amendment interests. In light of the discretion afforded it by the Berne Convention, Congress could have complied with the Convention without interfering with Plaintiffs’ protected speech. Accordingly–to the extent Section 514 suppresses the right of reliance parties to use works they exploited while the works were in the public domain–Section 514 is substantially broader than necessary to achieve the Government’s interest.

So, yes, this is a narrowly focused issue (and likely to be appealed right back up), but just the fact that a court has finally realized that copyright law can violate the First Amendment is a big win. Where this could get more interesting is if it eventually gets appealed up to the Supreme Court, and the court recognizes (as it hopefully will) that there’s a discrepancy between this ruling and the ruling in another of Lessig’s cases, Kahle v. Gonzales (which happened in the 9th circuit), and decides to look into whether or not certain changes in copyright law really did change the traditional contours of copyright law.

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Comments on “Court Rules Part Of Copyright Act Unconstitutional”

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28 Comments
Weird Harold (user link) says:

It’s a super narrow decision that really focuses on something that is out of the mainstream of copyright law. The only first amendment issue at play here is speech that was granted (public domains content) moved out of the public domain. In that very narrow regard, some previously permitted free speech was lost.

I wouldn’t think of it as anyway way in suggesting that copyright law per se violates the first amendment, just this very particular (and somewhat odd) move.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I wouldn’t think of it as anyway way in suggesting that copyright law per se violates the first amendment, just this very particular (and somewhat odd) move.

Which is exactly what Mike said. So who do you think you’re disagreeing with?

Separately, there are a number of top legal scholars who actually *do* believe that copyright law violates the First Amendment wholeheartedly, and that we’ll eventually see some lawsuits detailing that fact.

JMG says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Equating the necessity of copyright laws (a vaild topic) with whether the Earth is flat (an invalid topic) is quite a stretch. It is not at all obvious whether copyrights are important anymore (eg China’s way of dealing with “piracy”). Just because you may feel they are still needed, which is perfect good opinion, does not mean that getting rid of or greatly modifying them is a bad idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And I believe that Weird Harold has an I.Q. of somewhere south of 80. If that’s true or not, I’ll never know. But, the way he champions Copyright, I just can’t fathom someone really smart. Or maybe, very VERY smart, in the fact that he’s trying to rape American citizens of every cent they have, via a Government mandated monopoly.

Let’s put it this way, if governments stopped extending copyrights, and put them back to the original time for being in the public domain. No one would care. But now, copyright is just looked at as a welfare tax for artists, especially musicians.

RD says:

sure

“I wouldn’t think of it as anyway way in suggesting that copyright law per se violates the first amendment, just this very particular (and somewhat odd) move.”

Well thats good, since Mike never said that. Per se. Note the conditional word “CAN” in the above description. As in, possible. Could be. MIGHT. Nice try at baiting though.

Willton says:

Re: sure

Well thats good, since Mike never said that. Per se. Note the conditional word “CAN” in the above description. As in, possible. Could be. MIGHT. Nice try at baiting though.

Or it’s possible that Weird Harold was not trying to start a fight and was merely stating a fact. You sound like you were just hoping to correct him on something and then badger him.

Anonymous Coward says:

“While it may seem narrowly focused, this is the first case that has successfully challenged a part of copyright law as being unconstitutional.”

I know you based the above on the article presented at the Stanford website, but it is worth noting that this is not the first case that has successfully challenged a part of copyright law as being unconstitutional. An earlier district court decision in San Diego struck down a part of copyright law that dealt with the abrogation of state sovereign immunity.

As for a conflict existing between the 9th and 10th Circuits that might be viewed as sufficient reason for the Supreme Court to weigh in, I am familiar with both decisions and merely note here that they were directed to separate and distinct issues of copyright law. Thus, it seems doubtful that the Supreme Court would eventually elect to hear an appeal of this decision by the district court.

I agree that the district court rendered a decision on a very narrow issue, but an issue that could be overcome should Congress decide to do so by amending the pertinent section of copyright law that was challenged. It is not that I believe the law should be amended, but merely to note that Congress has been provided “wiggle room” that could be employed to “close the door” opened by this case.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As for a conflict existing between the 9th and 10th Circuits that might be viewed as sufficient reason for the Supreme Court to weigh in, I am familiar with both decisions and merely note here that they were directed to separate and distinct issues of copyright law.

Both dealt with the traditional contours of copyright and whether or not they were changed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

True, both cases use the phrase “traditional contours” contained in Eldred, but the cases deal with separate sections of our copyright laws. In the Golan case the issue involved the restoration of copyright in the US for foreign authors as specified at 17 U.S.C. § 104A.

Thus, at this point in time there does not exist a “conflict” between the 9th and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal.

Anon says:

Not as narrow as it appears...

This issue has some personal resonance with me. I and several of my friends and mentors study and translate (or adapt) older scripts and plays. This is a very common occurrence in live theater across the nation. It would be devastating to the theatrical community to have works withdrawn from Public Domain. It could potentially ruin months of work in what has always been considered a creative field. Cultural adaptions are and should always be considered new creative works, despite the fact that they are based on a different creative work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Copyright law

WTF Gene Cavanaugh ?

Do you have your head up your A$$? WTH is with your comment? Why would you think Reagan was a worse President than “W”? And, get off the Obama is the Messiah kick already. Obama is on a fast track to be another Carter, Well liked, but an idiot when it comes to being a leader. With Obama’s track record so far, the U.S. will be a Quadrillion Dollars in debt by the end of his first term.

bob says:

Baby and Bath Water

Rest assured that the next international copyright convention will not include the member nation discretion to restore the copyrights of foreign authors in a manner consistent with that member nation’s own body of copyright law clause.
As the constitution of the United States says that any ratified treaty is the supreme law of the land and we currently have Supreme Court Justices that already look at non US binding international law in their decisions, I would expect more US sovereignty to be thrown out the window.

Pete Braven (profile) says:

Re: Baby and Bath Water

If the incredible tangle of ‘copyright’ was reduced to common sense, it would basically follow the same rules as say a thesis for a doctorate. If you quote someone else’s work say so, with a reason but the bulk of the thesis must be original work or,.. you get thrown out of university!
Universities have applied that rule in a global sense for years and it works just fine! It’s pity publishers are a little less ethical.
Lawyers just confuse the issue to make meggabucks out of the cases they drag through the courts!

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