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Larry Lessig: Scrape Me Off The Ceiling!

September 5, 2007

Well, the famed advocate for an Internet unshackled by overly restrictive intellectual property statutes didn't exactly say that.

But he came close.

Lessig blogs a post celebrating the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit's unanimous decision yesterday in Golan v. Gonzales.

"In a unanimous vote, " Lessig writes. "The Court held that the "traditional contours of copyright protection" described in Eldred as the trigger for First Amendment review extend beyond the two "traditional First Amendment safeguards" mentioned by the Court in that case. It thus remanded the case to the District Court to evaluate section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (“URAA”) under the First Amendment, which removed material from the public domain.

"This is a very big victory," Lessig adds.

Then, the good Prof. (Stanford) takes time to explain just what could be at stake here.

The government had argued in this case, and in related cases, that the only First Amendment review of a copyright act possible was if Congress changed either fair use or erased the idea/expression dichotomy. We, by contrast, have argued consistently that in addition to those two, Eldred requires First Amendment review when Congress changes the "traditional contours of copyright protection." In Golan, the issue is a statute that removes work from the public domain. In a related case now on cert to the Supreme Court, Kahle v. Gonzales, the issue is Congress's change from an opt-in system of copyright to an opt-out system of copyright. That too, we have argued, is a change in a "traditional contour of copyright protection." Under the 10th Circuit's rule, it should merit 1st Amendment review as well.

I suspect this decision will weigh heavily in the Supreme Court's determination whether to grant review in the Kahle case. It also nicely demonstrates the wisdom in this part of the Eldred decision (don't get me started on the Progress Clause part of the decision...) The rule of Eldred, as interpreted by the 10th Circuit (and by us) is that Congress gets a presumption of First Amendment constitutionality when it legislates consistent with its tradition. But when it changes that tradition, its changes must be scrutinized under the First Amendment. This is an interesting constitutional argument -- echoing some of Justice Scalia's jurisprudence, as we argue in the cert petition. And it also makes a great deal of sense: practices unchanged for 200 years are less likely to raise First Amendment problems (but see ...); but whether or not immunity is justified for them, it is certainly not justified for practices that deviate from Congress' tradition.

The opinion by Judge Henry is well worth the read. The argument was one the best I have seen. All three judges knew the case cold. It is a measure of how good courts can be that they took such care to review this case.

I also recommend reading what the Center for Internet and Society's Anthony Falzone also wrote late Tuesday:

The Tenth Circuit handed us a momentous victory today, holding that the Uruguay Round Agreements Act ("URAA") altered the "traditional contours of copyright protection" by resurrecting copyright protection for works that had fallen into the public domain, thus contravening the "bedrock principle of copyright law that works in the public domain remain in the public domain."

While this decision does not invalidate the URAA, it does hold that the URAA must pass either strict or intermediate First Amendment scrutiny on remand.

In this time when onerous copyright provisions are more likely to be held up then overturned, this decision has the champagne corks poppin' in certain circles.

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