Article Title

Privatizing Copyright


Much has been written, and much is understood, about how and why digital platforms regulate free expression on the internet. Much less has been written— and even much less is understood—about how and why digital platforms regulate creative expression on the internet—expression that makes use of others’ copyrighted content. While § 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act regulates user-generated content incorporating copyrighted works, just as § 230 of the Communications Decency Act regulates other user speech on the internet, it is, in fact, rarely used by the largest internet platforms—Facebook and YouTube. Instead, as this Article details, creative speech on those platforms is governed by a series of highly confidential licensing agreements with large copyright holders.

Yet despite the dominance of private contracting in ordering how millions of pieces of digital content are made and distributed on a daily basis, little is known, and far less has been written, on just what the new rules governing creative expression are. This is, in fact, by design: these license agreements contain strict confidentiality clauses that prohibit public disclosure of any and all of their contents. This Article, however, pieces together clues from publicly available court filings, news reports, and leaked documents. The picture it reveals is a world where the substantive law of copyright is being quietly rewritten. Agreements between digital platforms and rightsholders remove the First Amendment safeguard of fair use, insert a new moral right for works previously deemed ineligible for moral rights protection, and use other small provisions to influence and reshape administrative, common, and statutory copyright law. Further still, recent changes or lobbied-for changes to copyright’s public law seek to either enshrine the primacy of such private governance or altogether remove copyright rulemaking processes from government oversight, cementing the legitimacy of the new private governors.

Changing copyright’s public law to enshrine the primacy of such private governance insulates the new rules of copyright from the democratic process, transforming public participation in, and public oversight of, the laws that shape our daily lives. Creative expression on the internet now finds itself at a curious precipice: there is a seeming glut of low-cost or free content, much of it created directly by and distributed to users—yet increasingly regulated by an opaque network of rules created by a select few private parties. An understanding of the internet’s democratizing potential for creativity is incomplete without a concomitant understanding of how the new private rules of copyright may shape, and harm, that creativity.