Twenty-one years ago, copyright died. More accurately, it was killed. In 1996, in ProCD v. Zeidenberg, Judge Easterbrook, writing for the Seventh Circuit, held that a contract that restricted the use of factual information was not preempted by the Copyright Act and therefore enforceable. The reaction among copyright scholars was swift and passionate. In dozens of articles and books, spreading over two decades, scholars cautioned that if the ProCD approach is broadly adopted, the results would be dire. Through contracts, the rights of copyright owners would run amok, expand, and in doing so they would invade, shrink, and possibly destroy the public domain. Contracts, we were repeatedly warned throughout the years, would kill copyright law.
This Article challenges this scholarly consensus by studying the court opinions that have dealt with the copyright-contract conflict over the past four decades. This examination reveals surprising facts: notwithstanding the scholars’ warnings, ProCD’s approach won the day and was embraced by most federal circuit courts. The doomsday scenarios scholars warned against, however, did not materialize. The overall effect of contracts on the size and scope of the public domain, or over copyright law as a whole, seems minimal. The Article explains this discrepancy and shows that contracts are an ineffective tool to control information because they are too weak of a device to threaten or replace copyright law. Indeed, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of copyright were greatly exaggerated. The Article concludes by placing this analysis in context, as part of a broader ongoing discussion on the desirability and enforceability of standard-form agreements.