Copyright and the Vagueness Doctrine
76 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2011 Last revised: 7 Nov 2016
Date Written: April 11, 2011
The Constitution’s void-for-vagueness doctrine is itself vaguely stated. The law does little to describe at what point vague laws - other than those that are entirely standardless - might be unconstitutionally vague. Rather than explore this territory, the Supreme Court has identified three "collateral factors" that affect its inclination to invalidate a law for vagueness, including (1) whether the law burdens the exercise of constitutional rights, (2) whether the law is punitive in nature, and (3) whether the law overlays a defendant-protective scienter requirement. Against this backdrop, it is fair to say that copyright law, in its current configuration, does not meet the vagueness doctrine’s minimum requirements of fair notice to the public. Copyright by its terms restricts free speech; the law’s prolixity frustrates ex ante assessment of what speech is lawful. The question whether speech infringes copyright requires reference to a multiplicity of top-level interlocking questions or doctrines - each with its own manifold of subsidiary legal issues. Still more troubling is the uncertainty that inheres in "substantial similarity" and fair use, the very copyright doctrines that are generally held to rescue copyright from charges of First Amendment overbreadth. This Article argues that although a case can be made that copyright is unconstitutionally vague, invalidation of all or any portion of the Copyright Act is unlikely and not constructive. Reforms undertaken specifically to cure copyright’s indeterminacy are not likely to be effective, either. However, a consideration of the vagueness doctrine’s collateral factors and how they apply to copyright suggests an appropriate reform of the law. For cases involving expressive use of copyrighted content, lawmakers should adopt a three-tiered system of civil infringement liability by which strict liability is preserved in cases brought for injunctive relief only, while suits for statutory and actual damages require proof of willful and negligent infringement, respectively.
Keywords: copyright, fair use, substantial similarity, constitution, first amendment, free expression, vagueness, scienter
JEL Classification: K13, K19, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation