Tag Archives | Patry

How to Fix Copyright, Part Deux

My first post addressed some of the common assumptions about what copyright laws can do. The two syllogisms and one tautology were not an expression of my beliefs, but rather an expression of common views, views I believe are mistaken for reasons I detail in the introduction to and in Chapter 3 of the book. That they are mistaken doesn’t mean that copyright serves no purpose: I believe copyright can serve a purpose of protecting against free-riding and in creating conditions under which investments can be made in a stable legal environment.

Agreeing that copyright can serve valuable purposes doesn’t, though, tell us about the necessary level of protection. Chapter 8 of the book deals with the term of copyright, how long protection should last. A great deal has been written about this, and court cases have been brought and lost challenging Congress’s extension of the term of protection, most notably in the Eldred case, which challenged part of a 1998 law extending the term another 20 years.

I believe the Eldred challenge suffered from poor strategy but the outcome is likely to have been the same, nevertheless. Evidencing a deference to Congress rare in most areas, the Court seemingly granted carte blanche to extend the term of copyright to whatever length the legislature wants so long as Congress merely states a belief that doing so would provide an incentive to create. By contrast, in the area of abrogating sovereign immunity, the Court reacted quite differently, getting into the weeds of how many witnesses there were at hearings and the substance of what they said.

The Eldred Court also engaged in what I regard as an indefensible jettisoning of the Constitutional text: the grant of power in Article I, section 8 clause 8 is to promote the progress of science. […]

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How to Fix Copyright, Part I

Thanks to Eugene for allowing to be a guest and to discuss my new book How to Fix Copyright (Oxford University Press). This is the first of a few posts. The title indicates that the book is both prescriptive – offering solutions (this is the “how to” part) – and attempts to be constructive: I want to fix, that is, improve copyright law’s effectiveness. I believe laws are tools, not ends in themselves, and that we should measure, empirically, their effectiveness against their stated objective.

We do not inherently need strong laws or weak laws anymore than we inherently need strong or weak medicines. We need laws and medicines that are fit for their purpose. What are copyright laws supposed to do? The most popular things copyright laws are said to do are: (1) provide incentives for authors to create works they would not create in the absence of that incentive; (2) provide the public with access to those works; and, (3) in some countries, provide respect, via non-economic rights, for those who create cultural works.

These goals are often fleshed out in ways that fit into the following two syllogisms and one tautology. Syllogism number one: Copyright is the basis for creativity. Creativity is the basis for culture. Therefore, copyright is the basis for culture. Syllogism number two: Copyright is the basis for a knowledge-based economy. The knowledge-based economy is the basis for competitiveness. Therefore, copyright is the basis for competitiveness. The tautology is the statement that the creative industries are those industries dependent on copyright laws and therefore copyright laws are essential to the growth of the creative industries.

The book examines the evidence for these statements to figure out if our current laws are accomplishing these goals, and if not, whether they can be amended, or if […]

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Copyright as a Government Program

In this, my last post – thanks so much Eugene and to those who took the time to comment – I will address remarks by Brian, the devil’s advocate. He very politely stated:

“While Orin let you off the hook, I think you, and maybe he given his acquiescence, miss the full import of his second question. If the maintenance of property is dependent upon the positive law, it becomes a utilitarian or consequentialist chit to be done with as government wishes.”


“At root you’re saying you are not sure you believe in real property. Given the fact that government has exceedingly the same view, and I think this contrary to, constitutional guarantees, natural and positive law, the normative understanding of the founders, as well as to utilitarian or consequentialist outcome oriented philosophy, I must respectfully dissent… .”

I would like to hear Brian’s views on is what he thinks copyright is if it is not positive law and what foundational authority there is for copyright not being a creature of positive law. It would really interesting to see how Brian thinks that would work out in practice, meaning someone goes into court and claims that their natural copyright rights have been infringed. What should a judge say to such a claim?

On the utilitarian or consequentialist point, I readily confess to holding that view. Copyright can be granted or not, or taken away as the government wishes, based on its utilitarian or consequentialist judgment. After all, the Constitutional grant in Article I, section 8, clause 8 is discretionary: Congress may grant copyright rights but it need not; hence my point about natural rights: Assume Congress decides to repeal the copyright act for all future works (and preempts state law too). A writer creates a work after the abolition […]

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Copyright and the Why of Property Talk

A few comments on my first two posts referred to the characterization of copyright as “intellectual property” or a “property.” While there have been a number of efforts to track down the fairly recent usage “intellectual property,” efforts to describe copyright rights as property are of an older vintage in both the United States and Britain. What interests me is not tracking down the first time the term “property” was used in conjunction with copyright, but why the association is sought to be made, both in the past and quite a bit recently.

To me, the debates about copyright as property are always political, not historical; they are always efforts to influence the present and the future, an effort to get the legislature or the courts to reset the boundaries. The use of the term property is not meant to simply describe what you own; after all if we took the current copyright act and added alternatively at the beginning “copyright is a privilege and not a property right,” or “copyright is a property right, not a privilege,” but changed nothing else, why would this matter?

Rather, use of term property is an effort to influence the debate about how far your property rights should go; this is what that great Victorian man of letters Augustine Birrell realized 111 years ago in a series of lectures on copyright he gave at the University College, London, later published as “Seven Lectures on the Law and History of Copyright in Books.” Mr. Birrell was ruminating, as we still do today, on the various origin stories for copyright. On the question of why copyright owners insist on describing their government created and granted right as a property right, Mr. Birrell wrote:

“The reason[] th[is] question[] was asked . . . was this—Certain rights […]

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Copyright and Morals

When I was a law student, a professor asked us whether we believed law and morals were co-extensive: if the law did not prohibit certain conduct, did that mean it was moral to engage in it? One of the comments on my first post similarly asked how I distinguished effective laws from moral considerations, whether I thought we could distinguish illegitimate from legitimate copyright conduct without a moral scheme.

The reference to effective laws was to my argument that we do not need strong copyright laws or weak copyright laws, but only effective copyright laws, with effective being judged by whether the copyright laws serve their purpose. This remark drew a comment that I was a typical academic, trying to “logic out” things. There was also a question about what I meant by means testing and a request for more information about Jack Valenti’s Boston Strangler testimony.

If only I was able to give a typical academic response to these questions. Of my 27 years as a copyright lawyer, only 5 were in academia, and even during those 5 years many of my colleagues did not regard me as an academic: I had spent my career up until then in private practice and government service. Since leaving academia, I spent 6 more (out of 12) years in private practice, and now three years in-house at Google. To me, then, effectiveness is not a logic problem, but an empirical one. Here’s an example, an easy one, term extension. If we say with Judge Posner and Professor Landes that we want to provide copyright in order to provide to convince creators to bring their works to market where they otherwise wouldn’t (say because they could more money doing something else), we have to figure out the proper level of incentives, in the […]

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Moral Panics and Copyright Law

Thanks Eugene for allowing me to be a guest blogger. I wrote Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars for two reasons. The first is the reason I have written everything, to learn. For me, writing is a way to discipline my thought, to the extent I am capable of doing so. The second reason was to offer a different take on why it is we have such a high level of copyright protection and why the copyright industries have such a long history of opposing new technologies.

Jane Ginsburg wrote an article in 2003 entitled “How Copyright Got a Bad Name For itself.” In it she cites some legislative efforts by copyright owners to obtain broad control over new technologies and says that these efforts suggest that “some copyright owners, if not paranoid, are Pavlovian in their response to new means of making copies or communicating new works.” But she ultimately dismisses this conduct as one of “appearances.” At the other end of the political spectrum, some on the copyleft side regard copyright owners as Luddites, or dinosaurs who just don’t get it, and who are intent on shoving corporate culture down our throats.

How is it that we have ended up with high levels of protection that to me are divorced from any sort of means testing, term extension being the archetypal example? One explanation is that Congress is corrupt, or less extremely, that there is a terrible asymmetry in lobbying power. Having worked for the House Judiciary Committee I don’t buy the first explanation (a bad choice of words!), while the second can be overcome, as the recent experiences in Canada on Bill C-61 and with the just-concluded consultative process show.

The book contains two basic conclusions. First, attempts to obtain economic rights that cannot be justified under […]

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