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First Amendment, copyright, Copyright Clause, Golan v. Holder, public domain, Treaty Power, Berne Convention, Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS Agreement, Congress


Does copyright violate the First Amendment? Professor Melville Nimmer asked this question forty years ago, and then answered it by concluding that copyright itself is affirmatively speech protective. Despite ample reason to doubt Nimmer’s response, the Supreme Court has avoided an independent, thoughtful, plenary review of the question. Copyright has come to enjoy an all-but-categorical immunity to First Amendment constraints. Now, however, the Court faces a new challenge to its back-of-the-hand treatment of this vital conflict. In Golan v. Holder the Tenth Circuit considered legislation (enacted pursuant to the Berne Convention and TRIPS) “restoring” copyright protection to millions of foreign works previously thought to belong to the public domain. The Tenth Circuit upheld the legislation, but not without noting that it appeared to raise important First Amendment concerns. The Supreme Court granted certiorari. This article addresses the issues in the Golan case, literally on the eve of oral argument before the Court. This article first considers the Copyright and Treaty Clauses, and then addresses the relationship between copyright and the First Amendment. The discussion endorses an understanding of that relationship in which the Amendment is newly seen as paramount, and copyright is newly seen in the image of the Amendment.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Constitutional law, Treaty-making power, United States. Congress, Golan v. Holder, Copyright, Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886), Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (1994), Public domain, Constitution. 1st Amendment