In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Eldred v. Ashcroft that a copyright law could be reviewed under the First Amendment as a restriction on speech only if it constitued a change to the “traditional contours of copyright protection.” Yesterday, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the permanence of public-domain status is such a “traditional contour” — that is, when something enters the public domain, we expect it to stay there. Accordingly, the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which granted “restored” copyright protection to a large number of works in the public domain that had been created outside the United States, was a change to that traditional contour, and required review as a restriction on speech.
The court reached its decision by careful attention to history. The government’s best argument was that Congress had pulled works from the public domain several times in American history, so no “traditional contour” had been changed. The court conducted a detailed analysis of each of those (rather obscure) historical situations, such as wartime copyright laws enacted in 1919 and 1941 which excused authors’ inability to comply with copyright formalities due to wartime shortages and disruptions. The court found that each was by definition an unusual event prompted by exigent circumstances, and that such temporary enactments did not set copyright’s “traditional contours.” The court took an even more scholarly approach to the question of whether the 1790 Copyright Act, which was the young nation’s first copyright statute, removed works from the public domain in certain states which did not have copyright laws up until that time. Reviewing a number of primary sources and law review articles, the court found that it was “probably not just unclear but also unknowable” whether the first Congress thought it was removing works from the public domain due to the scarcity of historical evidence.
The Tenth Circuit remanded the case to the district court. Its instructions on remand are a little curious. It asks the district court to determine whether the URAA is a content-based or a content-neutral restriction on speech. I’m not sure why, for two reasons. [UPDATE: I want to emphasize that I think the court was right to reach this analysis, since it found that the URAA was subject to First Amendment scrutiny. I'm just not sure why it needed to remand on these grounds rather than deciding that the regulation was content-based, anouncing the proper standard, then remanding.] First, whether a law is content-based or content-neutral ought to be a pure question of law; there aren’t any facts to find, so I’m not sure why the district court gets first crack. Second, I can’t imagine a way to find that any copyright law is content-neutral. If I stand on a soapbox in the middle of town and recite a certain poem that begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,” the law does not punish me. If I stand on the same soapbox and recite — at the same volume, in the same tone of voice — a different poem that begins “Oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know?,” the law punishes me. That’s the very definition of a content-based restriction. We’ll see what the district court does.
Or maybe we won’t. The government can petition for certiorari before the case gets remanded. Because of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Kahle v. Gonzales, there’s now a circuit split regarding how courts decide when a law has changed copyright’s “traditional contours,” making Supreme Court review more likely. A chance for the Court to revisit its “traditional contours” comment could be a great boon to culture, or might shut off all future opportunities to place First Amendment limits on copyright laws.
This ruling is an extremely satisfying development for me personally. During the summer of 2004, I worked on the Golan case with Larry Lessig, Elizabeth Rader, Colette Vogele, and Chris Sprigman. I had the chance to do some of the factual, legal, and historical research that supported the plaintiffs’ claims. I’m proud of the work the team has done since the case was filed back in 2001, and hope that this victory is only the first.
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