September 5, 2007 · Lessig
The 10th Circuit decided our appeal in Golan v. Gonzales today. In a unanimous vote, 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. 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.
Thanks to everyone on our team that made this possible. First the clients — Lawrence Golan, the Richard Kapp Estate, S.A. Publishing, Symphony of the Canyons, Ron Hall and John McDonough (all of whom use and build upon material in the public domain; all of whom were negatively affected by Congress’s removal of material from the public domain). But also and especially to the gaggle of fantastic lawyers who supported us in the case — the Denver firm of Wheeler, Trigg, Kennedy, and Stanford CIS lawyers Chris Sprigman, Ed Lee, Jennifer Granick, David Olson, David Levine, Colette Vogel, Elizabeth Rader and Lauren Gelman (Tony Falzone came on afterwards).