In July 2006 the District Court of Colorado released its Memorandum Opinion and Order for the case Clean Flicks of Colorado, LLC v. Soderbergh. The decision stands as the culmination of events that included accusations, finger-pointing, judicial appeals, massive impleadings, academic debates, congressional hearings, and even statutory intervention. The specific issue that the court faced, which is still under discussion today, was whether companies that edit consumers’ personal copies of motion pictures for moral content infringed the movie studios’ copyrights. Although much of mainstream America was likely unaware of either the case’s existence or outcome, the court’s decision has the potential to affect many Americans because it directly impacts the broader question at issue: whether a proper balancing of copyright interests should recognize and protect consumers’ right to control the way that they experience movies in the privacy of their own homes.

In June 2005, the Supreme Court held that the peer-to-peer (“P2P”) networks Grokster and Streamcast1 could be held liable for contributory copyright infringement upon a showing that network administrators clearly expressed support for or took other affirmative steps to encourage infringement. In the Supreme Court’s only prior holding on the issue of secondary liability, Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., the Court established that a manufacturer could not be held liable for contributory infringement if the device was “capable of substantial noninfringing uses.” In Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., the Court focused on the networks’ culpable conduct-relying on an inducement theory-and came to a conclusion that would allow the lower court to find Grokster liable on remand without resolving the current circuit split on the issue4 or rethinking or reinterpreting its prior holding in Sony. This ruling essentially overturned the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Grokster was not liable for its users’ infringement merely by virtue of the fact that the system also had substantial noninfringing uses. The Grokster Court instead held that the Sony doctrine did not foreclose the possibility that an actor could be liable for contributory infringement, even if the device is capable of substantial noninfringing uses, when there is evidence the actor encouraged and induced illegal use of the product.

Because we learn from history, we also try to teach from history. Persuasive discourse of all kinds is replete with historical examples – some true and applicable to the issue at hand, some one but not the other, and some neither. Beginning in the 1990s, intellectual property scholars began providing descriptive accounts of a tremendous strengthening of copyright laws, expressing the normative view that this trend needs to be arrested, if not reversed. This thoughtful body of scholarly literature is sometimes bolstered with historical claims – often casual comments about the way things were. The claims about history, legal or otherwise, are used to support the normative prescription about what intellectual property law should be.

“We are at a moment in our history at which the terms of freedom and justice are up for grabs.” Every major innovation in the history of communications – the printing press, radio, telephone – saw a brief open period before the rules of its use were determined and alternatives were eliminated. “The Internet is in that space right now.”

The technology of the Internet has revolutionized communication and information distribution throughout the world. The direction of this revolution, however, will be determined in large part by how the law chooses to regulate this new medium.

The lawfulness of sharing copyrighted works has always been contested, but never so hotly as it is today. The marriage of digital technology and information products creates remarkable opportunities for digital file-sharing, and new disputes asking when copyright law should give copyright owners control over sharing of copies of their works. This Article broadens the terms of the sharing debate by recognizing that file-sharing is just one member of a diverse set of sharing behaviors that occur in copyright protected markets. Books and recorded movies are shared by lending – books are lent by public libraries at no charge, while movies are rented for a fee. Owners of copyrighted works often share their copies by performing them for an audience. The audience might be children listening to a bedtime story, friends watching a recorded movie together, patrons at a bar listening to recorded music, and so forth. Finally, users share many sorts of works via private reproduction using computers, video and audio recorders, photocopiers, and scanners.

Copyright law specifies a mixed pattern of rights over sharing. Copyright owners have worked effectively to exert control over many forms of sharing, but powerful business groups have defended users’ sharing rights as a means of increasing their profit. The two sides have wrestled in Congress and the courts over the scope of various copyright provisions, especially the fair use doctrine, the main arena for conflict over sharing rights and the main focus of this Article. 

Throughout the 1970s, the Bronx borough of New York City was perceived as a microcosm of desolate American urban hopelessness. Within this economically barren wasteland, the city’s culture cultivated a colorful new form of musical art, organically sown from the seeds of the past. What was born as a fringe musical movement has evolved into an American cultural mainstay. Today, hip-hop music experiences tremendous mainstream success, both as a credible art form and as a business. Yet the success and proliferation of this genre has largely relied on the use of samples of past funk, rock, and soul compositions.

Copyright law was established as a mechanism for the promotion of innovation. In the realm of digital sampling, however, its role remains somewhat unclear. It is obvious that unauthorized copying of original compositions should be unlawful, but the extent of this protection remains a doctrinally elusive concept when applied to small or manipulated fragments of music. Specifically, the issue of digital sampling suffers from a lack of clear judicial guidance. Although sampling can clearly be translated into standard copyright doctrine, its exact fit has yet to be definitively declared by the judiciary. District courts have only sporadically tackled the topic, deterring potential litigants who fear the consequences of inconsistent doctrinal application.

Eldred v. Ashcroft, as decided by the Supreme Court in January 2003, added another chapter regarding the relationship between copyright law and freedom of speech to the judicial “chain novel” that has been in the writing for the past three decades. The Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (“CTEA”), which extended the copyright term by twenty years, both for existing works and for new works. As in previous chapters, the Court reached the conclusion that there is no conflict between the two legal fields. It repeated the judicial sound bite that “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression.” Eldred nicely fits the conflict discourse, which is mostly one of denial. But Eldred also included novel and interesting elements that offer a new direction to the conflict discourse, or at least a potential for redirection.

Eldred raises many intriguing copyright law and constitutional law questions. Here, however, I wish to focus on the possible ramifications the case might have on the conflict discourse with respect to its constitutional level. Surprisingly, Eldred is the first facial constitutional challenge to copyright law in 213 years. As copyright law continues to expand into new territories and in unpredictable ways, and as new bills are introduced at a staggering rate to further the scope of the rights of copyright owners, it is crucial that we study the contours of copyright law. This need is especially acute in light of the Court’s comment that “[w]hen, as in this case, Congress has not altered the traditional contours of copyright protection, further First Amendment scrutiny is unnecessary.”