January 7, 2008 · Lessig
Some important news in the continuing struggle to reckon the First Amendment and copyright. For those not following this in depth, here’s the story so far:
In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court was asked to subject a copyright statute to First Amendment analysis. The Court declined that request. Instead, the Court held that so long as copyright act does not change the “traditional contours of copyright protection,” further First Amendment review is not required.
That standard left open the question of what the “traditional contours of copyright protection” were. In three follow on cases, lower courts have now addressed the question. In all three of these lower court cases, the government has argued that by “traditional contours of copyright protection,” the Eldred court meant simply the “idea/expression” dichotomy and “fair use.” Thus, the only possible First Amendment challenge to a copyright statute, according to the government, is if the statute changes one of these two “traditional First Amendment safeguards,” as the Court in Eldred referred to them.
Plaintiffs in these three lower court cases have taken a broader view of the meaning of “traditional contours of copyright protection.” Rather than limited to the two “First Amendment safeguards,” plaintiffs have argued that “traditional contours” means, well, traditional contours. That if plaintiffs allege a change in the “traditional contours of copyright protection” implicating First Amendment interests, that change should be subject to First Amendment review.
In two of these lower court opinions, one in the Ninth Circuit (Kahle v. Mukasey) and one in a district court in the DC Circuit (Luck’s Music v. Ashcroft), the courts have agreed with the government. In one of these lower court opinions, (Golan v. Mukasey), the 10th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs.
This split was the focus of a cert petition (Petition, Reply, Supplemental Brief) to the Supreme Court in Kahle. The government responded (response) that there was no need for Supreme Court to review Kahle, because the “mistaken” decision by the 10th Circuit would be reversed when the Court of Appeals granted the government’s motion to rehear the case en banc.
On Friday, the 10th Circuit denied the government’s motion. But on Friday, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s recommendation not to recognize the split, by denying cert. Thus, though the reason the government offered for not granting cert turned out to be false, cert has not been granted.
There’s no chance the government will allow the 10th Circuit’s decision to stand unreviewed. But while the 10th Circuit opinion is fantastically well done, it is unfortunate, in my view, that the Court did not take the opportunity to resolve the split in the context of Kahle. The issues in that case are clearer; they provide a better context within which to review the meaning of the Eldred rule — indeed, they make the wisdom of the Eldred rule seem obvious.