Pirates of the Information Infrastructure: Blackstonian Copyright and the First Amendment

87 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2005

See all articles by Hannibal Travis

Hannibal Travis

Florida International University College of Law


The author analyzes the ongoing expansion of American copyright law from the standpoint of the comparative history and philosophy of exclusive rights in lands on the one hand, and in creative expression on the other. He documents the persistence of a particularly influential mode of discourse about property rights from the English Enclosure Movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries down to the Internet copyright debates of the present day. During this time, the duration and breadth of copyright have been extended to economically dubious and arguably unconstitutional lengths. At each new incursion into the intellectual commons, substantially the same dual-pronged justification has been brought to bear, combining a one-sided emphasis on certain "natural" rights with a rudimentary and poorly documented account of the "tragedy of the commons." This unmooring of copyright from the historical limits on its scope and duration threatens to chill the flow of public domain material and transformative works onto the World Wide Web. The author argues that a searching First Amendment inquiry into the dubious origins of Blackstonian copyright, along with a more critical appraisal of its philosophical provenance, should precede implementation of "notice-and-take-down" schemes and other statutory, technological, and contractual restrictions on imitation and quotation in cyberspace and elsewhere. Absent such an inquiry, the redefinition of "piracy" to include evaluation, critique, parody, and even reproduction of public domain works will undo the advances in the accessibility and heterogeneity of information that the advent of cyberspace communication has wrought, and that the First Amendment was explicitly intended to achieve.

Keywords: Internet, copyright, first amendment, originalism, Blackstone, DMCA, UCITA, Grokster, Napster, Sony, Microsoft, Intel, Locke, Hobbes, Madison, Jefferson

Suggested Citation

Travis, Hannibal, Pirates of the Information Infrastructure: Blackstonian Copyright and the First Amendment. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 15, No. 777, 2000. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=758885

Hannibal Travis (Contact Author)

Florida International University College of Law ( email )

11200 SW 8th St.
RDB Hall 1097
Miami, FL 33199
United States

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