Weaponizing Copyright

74 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2021 Last revised: 22 Apr 2022

See all articles by Cathay Smith

Cathay Smith

The University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law

Date Written: March 16, 2021


Copyright grants authors exclusive rights in their works in order to encourage creation and dissemination of socially valuable works. It permits copyright owners to assert their copyright against violations of those rights when necessary to protect their market exclusivity and economic interests. Increasingly, however, copyright is being used by individuals to achieve other objectives. This Article examines the increasingly widespread phenomenon of individuals using copyright to vindicate noncopyright interests, which this Article refers to as “weaponizing copyright.” In some cases, copyright is weaponized to silence criticism and legitimate speech. In other instances, the objective is to erase facts and make information disappear. Some assertions of copyright are intended to punish or retaliate for some perceived wrongdoing. Other assertions of copyright involve attempts to protect the reputation and dignity of copyright owners. Another objective is to protect privacy in personal and intimate information. In none of these scenarios are copyright owners seeking to protect their legitimate market or economic interests in their copyrighted works, the intended purpose of copyright.

Through exploring recent and high-profile instances of copyright weaponization involving Harvey Weinstein and Ronan Farrow, Pepe the Frog and InfoWars, Success Kid and Steve King, Navy SEALS and the Associated Press, PewDiePie, Dr. Dew, the McCloskeys, Netflix Films, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, this Article exposes the increasingly widespread practice of copyright weaponization. It explains how copyright became the weapon par excellence for individuals to punish, erase, suppress, protect, and vindicate noncopyright interests, and why individuals choose to weaponize copyright instead of pursuing claims under other laws. It also pushes back on the frequently accepted presumption that weaponizing copyright is always harmful and must be discouraged by exploring the power dynamics and blurry lines between weaponization by aggressors to punish, erase, suppress, and weaponization by the vulnerable to protect, preserve, and defend. Ultimately, this Article attempts to resolve two important questions: whether copyright should serve to protect some noncopyright interests but not others, and whether there is a fair and just way to manage the increasingly pervasive practice of copyright weaponization.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Cathay, Weaponizing Copyright (March 16, 2021). 35 Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 193 (2022), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3806015 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3806015

Cathay Smith (Contact Author)

The University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law ( email )

Missoula, MT 59812-0002
United States

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