Laws protecting intellectual property—patents, copyrights, and trademarks—can both advance free speech and pose significant threats to civil liberties. The ability to keep books you write or pictures you take from being copied and sold without your permission, for instance, creates a financial incentive to write those books or take those pictures, fostering creativity and encouraging speech. By the same token, overly aggressive enforcement of copyright laws—the right to copy material—literally blocks people from speaking freely.
The ACLU has been at the forefront of trying to find the appropriate balance between protecting the incentive to create and invent and preserving free speech. We brought the successful Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics U.S. Supreme Court case, which invalidated patents on human genes. We continue to defend free speech in the face of copyright laws restricting technology with lawful, non-infringing uses, and we also work to preserve and expand the “fair use” doctrine, which provides a key safety valve that permits the use of copyrighted material in journalism, teaching, satire, and other important areas.
With the growth of the Internet and the advance of modern technology, this balance is especially important. Lawmakers have repeatedly proposed measures that tip the balance in the wrong direction, including the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), both of which we opposed. We must be vigilant to ensure that intellectual property laws continue to serve the First Amendment and do not become the means to gum up the marketplace of ideas.