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.