Rethinking Copyright's Relationship to the First Amendment

56 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2020 Last revised: 28 Oct 2020

Date Written: August 24, 2020


This Article offers a new account of copyright’s relationship to the First Amendment. Until now, discourse about copyright and the First Amendment appears focused on applying a single standard of review. The Supreme Court has effectively taken the position that courts need only apply rational basis First Amendment scrutiny to copyright law. Some scholars have disagreed, arguing that intermediate scrutiny should be applied to all of copyright. By contrast, this Article argues that the proper level of First Amendment scrutiny depends on the type of copyright provision under review. In particular, courts should apply strict scrutiny to the few portions of the Copyright Act that embody viewpoint-based regulation of speech, intermediate scrutiny to the more numerous provisions that employ content-based regulation of speech, and rational basis scrutiny to the Copyright Act’s content-neutral provisions.

This suggestion draws inspiration from recent Supreme Court decisions applying strict scrutiny to aspects of trademark law. These cases show that basic free speech principles apply to intellectual property, thereby raising doubt about the wisdom of applying only rational basis First Amendment scrutiny to copyright. The Article uses these principles and insights gained from copyright’s historical relationship to the First Amendment to construct a framework that gives courts the ability to curb the use of copyright as censorship or naked economic giveaway while preserving Congress’ ability to implement appropriately reasoned copyright policies that serve the public interest.

Keywords: copyright, free speech, First Amendment, intellectual property

Suggested Citation

Yen, Alfred Chueh-Chin, Rethinking Copyright's Relationship to the First Amendment (August 24, 2020). 100 B.U. L. Rev. 1215, 2020, Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 543, Available at SSRN: or

Alfred Chueh-Chin Yen (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

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