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. 

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) issues over 170,000 patents a year. Unfortunately, the PTO makes mistakes and issues some invalid or “bad” patents that do not meet the statutory requirements of novelty and nonobviousness. The simplest approach to eliminating bad patents is to subject applications to stricter scrutiny by the PTO. A recent article, however, has questioned the efficiency of spending more resources at the examination stage. Aside from the patent prosecution procedure, federal patent law allows administrative reexaminations, either ex parte or inter partes. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of this approach is undercut by the low number of reexaminations actually requested.

This Note takes a more indirect route to improving patent quality. A major problem with the patent litigation system is that it is often cheaper for individual defendants to settle than to litigate, even if the patent is clearly invalid. The current system allows patentees to profit from bad patents and, therefore, creates an incentive to file bad patents. Further, patentees strategically sue small companies, knowing that they lack the resources to challenge patent validity effectively.

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.”