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Taming the Derivative Works Right: A Modest Proposal for Reducing Overbreadth and Vagueness in Copyright


Christina Bohannan


University of Iowa - College of Law

September 11, 2010

Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 669, Summer 2010
U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper

Abstract:     
The Supreme Court's recent 8-1 decision in United States v. Stevens only served to reiterate the Court's concern with overbreadth in First Amendment challenges to statutes. Concluding that the statute in question prohibited a good deal of speech that was unrelated to the statute's legitimate target, the Court held that the statute was substantially overbroad and therefore invalid.

Stevens as well as earlier First Amendment decisions shed considerable light on the problems of overbreadth and vagueness in copyright law, particularly the derivative works right. The copyright holder’s derivative works right prohibits others from making any work “based upon a copyrighted work” that “modifies, transforms, or adapts” the copyrighted work in any way. Because all new expression must necessarily borrow from existing expression to some degree, the derivative works right sweeps a good deal of speech within its prohibition, much of which is either harmless to the copyright holder or else outside the legitimate boundaries of copyright protection. While the fair use doctrine purports to protect some of this new expression, fair use is vague and unpredictable in application, particularly when it intersects with the derivative works right. Further, the doctrine can be asserted only after a speaker has risked an infringement claim.

This Article compares the Copyright Act and the way courts have applied it to a variety of other provisions that limit speech and that have been struck down or construed narrowly on overbreadth grounds. It demonstrates considerable overbreadth and vagueness in the scope of copyright protection, arguing for narrowing rules of construction that will mitigate these First Amendment concerns.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 32

Keywords: Copyright, Derivative Works, First Amendment, Constitutional Law, Overbreadth, Speech

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Date posted: August 8, 2010 ; Last revised: September 13, 2010

Suggested Citation

Bohannan, Christina, Taming the Derivative Works Right: A Modest Proposal for Reducing Overbreadth and Vagueness in Copyright (September 11, 2010). Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 669, Summer 2010; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1655163

Contact Information

Christina Bohannan (Contact Author)
University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )
Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States
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