We are at a crossroads with respect to the under-developed equitable defense of copyright misuse. The defense may go the way of its sibling, antitrust-based patent misuse, which seems to be in a state of inevitable decline. Or - if judges accept the proposal of this Article – courts could reinvigorate the copyright misuse defense to better protect First Amendment speech that is guaranteed by statute, but that is often chilled by copyright holders misusing their copyrights to control other’s speech.
The Copyright Act serves First Amendment interests by encouraging authors to create works. But copyright law can also discourage the creation of new works by preventing subsequent creators from using copyrighted work to make their own, new speech. Courts have long recognized this inherent tension, and have also recognized that the conflict should sometimes be decided in favor of allowing a subsequent speaker the right to make unauthorized use of others’ copyrighted works. Accordingly, courts created, and Congress codified, the fair use defense to copyright infringement, which allows unauthorized use of copyrighted works under certain circumstances that encourage speech and creation of transformative works. The problem with fair use, however, is that the informational uncertainties and transaction costs of litigating the defense make the fair use right unavailable to many as a practical matter. Subsequent creators are left open to intimidation by copyright holders threatening infringement suits. By decoupling the copyright misuse defense from its basis in antitrust principles and basing it in First Amendment speech principles, the legal protections for fair use shift from theoretical rights to practical rights for many. Copyright misuse has two deterrent features that will allow fair use as a practical right. First, a copyright holder’s misuse of its copyrights against anyone can be used to prove the defense of misuse. Second, once misuse is found, the copyright owner loses its ability to enforce its copyright against everyone, at least until the misuse is cured. Thus, by defining as copyright misuse the unjustified chilling of speech that some copyright holders perpetrate, the misuse defense will encourage important speech rights that are currently under-protected.