I think the Golan decision is a good thing from a policy perspective, given how hard the copyright cartel has worked to keep anything from ever falling into the public domain. However, I share Joe’s puzzlement about exactly how the First Amendment is relevant:
The Tenth Circuit remanded the case to the district court. Its instructions on remand are a little curious. It asks the district court to determine whether the URAA is a content-based or a content-neutral restriction on speech. I’m not sure why, for two reasons. First, whether a law is content-based or content-neutral ought to be a pure question of law; there aren’t any facts to find, so I’m not sure why the district court gets first crack. Second, I can’t imagine a way to find that any copyright law is content-neutral. If I stand on a soapbox in the middle of town and recite a certain poem that begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,” the law does not punish me. If I stand on the same soapbox and recite — at the same volume, in the same tone of voice — a different poem that begins “Oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know?,” the law punishes me. That’s the very definition of a content-based restriction. We’ll see what the district court does.
It seems to me that if the courts find a particular grant of copyright exceeds Congress’s power under the Progress Clause, that, in and of itself, should be sufficient to declare the law in question unconstitutional. Otherwise, why would the framers have gone to the trouble of specifying the precise limits of Congress’s powers to grant patents and copyrights?
Perhaps the legal theory here is that Congress has the power to do whatever it likes unless it runs afoul of a right enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but that, if a Congressional action falls within the scope of the Progress Clause, then it’s constitutional even if it runs afoul of the Bill of Rights. That seems bass-ackwards to me, but of course, I was equally perplexed when the Supreme Court decided that growing pot in your backyard for personal use is “interstate commerce.”