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Patenting the Social: A Non-Economic Take on Alice

Laura R. Ford, Patenting the Social: Alice, Abstraction, & Functionalism in Software Patent Claims, 14 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 259 (2016).

“Where does technology stop and humanity begin?” This is the weighty opening question in Laura Ford’s recent article Patenting the Social. Ford, a sociologist and lawyer, offers a novel contribution to the debates raging in the courts and law reviews after the Supreme Court opinion in Alice v. CLS Bank about what constitutes a patent-ineligible abstract idea and, relatedly, why abstract ideas should be patent-ineligible. She proposes that claims describing novel computer-mediated social relationships and interactions (“the social”) are core examples of claims to abstract ideas, but that claims to novel means of achieving those social ends are not. Ford then draws on sociological concerns and moral theory to defend her interpretation of Alice. She argues that patents that privatize social progress, as opposed to the technological progress, are bad policy based on concerns about human flourishing, politics, and culture—i.e., reasons other than the conventional, economically oriented reasons for limits on patentability that focus on innovation incentives.

I found Patenting the Social to be both interesting and timely for two reasons. First, I believe that defining the abstract with reference to the social offers a plausible story for explaining, at least in part, why the Supreme Court reached the conclusion that it did in its Alice opinion and, perhaps more importantly, its earlier opinion in Bilski v. Kappos, on which Alice relies. The Court’s choice not to even attempt to define an abstract idea in these opinions is by now infamous. Whether you personally agree with it as a policy matter or not, this hypothesis that the Court’s discomfort with the privatization of new patterns of contractual commitments—which are nothing but legally enforceable patterns of social obligations—is grounded in part in non-economic reasoning should not be lightly dismissed. Patenting the Social gives voice to this hypothesis more thoroughly than other academics have to date managed to do. Second, I find the notion that privatization of the social is problematic to be an interesting counterpoint to the message of the Supreme Court’s other opinions on patent-ineligibility in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics and Mayo v. Prometheus. In these biomedical cases, the Court focused on the privatization of the natural as the crux of the problem that limits on patent-eligibility can solve. Under Ford’s interpretation, Bilski and Alice provide an intriguing bookend to Myriad and Mayo: both the social and the natural are off limits.

To illustrate what patents on computer-mediated social relationships and interactions might look like, Patenting the Social offers a deep dive into a number of Facebook patents. It is unclear whether these patents are representative of the bulk of patents that the courts have invalidated in the wake of Alice, but the laser-like focus of Patenting the Social on such patents only goes to show that the concept of an abstract idea does not have a single definition. Rather, it is a poly-nodal or multiply ambiguous concept. It means different things when used in reference to different patents.

Patenting the Social offers a line-drawing proposal under which social ends are patent-ineligible but “efficient causal means of achieving social ends” are patent-eligible. This proposal clearly echoes the Court’s line articulated in Alice—namely that improvements in the functioning of a computer itself are patent-eligible—but its intellectual origins are, curiously, entirely different. The proposal draws from sociology’s response to the now-discredited functionalist explanation of social phenomena, rather than the economics of patent scope, to suggest this focus on causal means rather than social ends as the locus of patent-eligible invention.

A number of additional, well-articulated arguments fill out the pages of Patenting the Social. But, rather than plumb any specific, individual argument in greater depth, I want to conclude by reiterating my principal point. You may or may not believe that sociological concerns about patenting the social should limit the reach of patent-eligibility. However, given the plausibility of the hypothesis that such concerns did in fact motivate, at least in part, the Supreme Court’s Bilski opinion that set the course for the doctrine of patent-eligibility on which we find ourselves today, I believe that Patenting the Social is a worthwhile read for anyone thinking about what courses can and should be charted for tomorrow.

Cite as: Kevin E. Collins, Patenting the Social: A Non-Economic Take on Alice, JOTWELL (October 18, 2016) (reviewing Laura R. Ford, Patenting the Social: Alice, Abstraction, & Functionalism in Software Patent Claims, 14 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 259 (2016)),

Speaking from the Grave. Should Copyright Listen?

Eva E. Subotnik, Artistic Control After Death, 92 Wash. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017), available at SSRN.

Should authors be able to control the use of their work after they die? It’s a question that touches deep personal and public concerns. It resonates with longstanding debates in literary studies over the “death of the author” and “authorial intent,” and is an issue that Professor Eva Subotnik tackles in her latest article, Artistic Control After Death (forthcoming in the Washington Law Review).

Currently, U.S. copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death so that control of an author’s copyrights extends far into the future. Long after an author creates a work, often decades after publication and the work’s integration into artistic or literary culture, under the law, heirs and literary estates have the power to exercise control over the work’s continued use and dissemination.

This enduring control may be troublesome for reasons related to the special contours of intellectual property shaped by both private rights of exclusion and public rights of access to culture and knowledge. The longer that exclusive control over works is exercised into the future, the slower the public domain is enriched to promote the constitutional prerogative of “progress of science and the useful arts” through copyright.

This is not just a problem of copyright duration, which has continued to lengthen since its U.S. origins of fourteen years in 1790. It is also a problem for an author’s purposes and hopes for a work, which can shift over a lifetime with changes to cultural production, aesthetics, and business practices, to say nothing of personal predilections and personality.

Many authors (e.g., J.D. Salinger) are deeply attached to their works and exercise particularized and sometimes parent-like control during their lifetimes. Others are more liberal with copying and transformation by fans and other noncommercial or noncompeting uses (e.g., J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman).

Upon death, how much should authorial intent and past practices guide the living who now own the copyrighted works? How should authorial intent as opposed to the concerns of the living (be they monetary, reputational, charitable, or cultural concerns) shape the stewardship of inherited copyrighted works? These questions become particularly acute in the context of authors who have left specific instructions and for works that remain unpublished or unfinished.

Professor Subotnik’s article addresses just this debate in the contemporary context of extended copyright terms and copyright heirs’ legal rights and obligations. This article couldn’t be more timely given concerns raised over the estates of Harper Lee and Prince. Both Harper Lee and Prince intentionally left work unpublished, work that contemporary audiences would love to read and hear. Harper Lee’s agent and lawyer in control of Lee’s finances for some time published the work under suspicious circumstances. The book received negative reviews and arguably affected Harper Lee’s literary reputation, although it certainly enriched her heirs. Many recordings in Prince’s musical estate remain unreleased as his heirs debate what to do. How should copyright law resolve these tensions?

Professor Subotnik’s contribution introduces to the intellectual property literature the rich debate in trusts and estates law concerning “dead hand control” of assets through trust instruments and fiduciary relations. In trusts and estates law, this debate has long raged: how much can grantors of property control its use after their deaths, especially in light of changing circumstances, both societal and personal?

For someone (like me) who knows next to nothing about trusts and estates law, but regularly follows developments in copyright law, the article is informative and provocative. The article does not propose a balancing test, but rather a rule. Professor Subotnik argues that enforceability of post-mortem instructions over copyrighted work should be guided by federal copyright policy, which favors the living, even if that means overriding the author’s wishes. She makes an especially strong case for this rule “where [the] authors seek to bar entire categories of uses of their works and where … enforcement [of post-mortem instructions] is … not needed to protect against the premature destruction of the work by the author.” This rule would arguably support the publication of Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and of Prince’s unreleased recordings, despite the sequestration of both during the authors’ lifetimes.

Subotnik’s article proceeds in three parts. It begins by recounting the diverse ways authors control their work through their heirs, by means of formal mechanisms (residuary gifts, wills, and trusts) and informal mechanisms (leading by example and discussions with the living). This part is full of engaging accounts from various authors’ estates as Professor Subotnik digs into the literary history and details of famous authors.

Animating this first part is a photograph of the will of Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, displaying his hand-written directive that “in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.” A year after Yauch’s death, the remaining Beastie Boys invoked this directive to enjoin the toymaker Goldiblox from using the 1987 Beastie Boys song “Girls” in an advertisement that celebrated young girls as aspiring engineers. The toymaker altered the lyrics of the song to describe the company’s mission (“Girls to build a spaceship / Girls to code the new app / Girls to grow up knowing / That they can engineer that”).

Surely, this kind of social commentary and transformation of “Girls” is fair use under copyright law (the 1994 Supreme Court case of Campbell v. Acuff Rose strongly suggests as much). And yet because of Yauch’s will, and the devoted heirs of Yauch’s musical copyrights, the lawsuit persisted until Goldiblox withdrew the commercial. Is this what someone like Yauch intended? The legal and ethical ambiguity surrounding such instructions, in light of copyright’s purposes of promoting cultural conversations consistent with First Amendment principles, leads us inevitably to a discussion of what to do.

In the second part of the paper, Subotnik discusses the debates within trusts and estates law about the proper extent of dead-hand control. Arguments for control include natural law, incentivizing wealth accumulation, promoting industry and productivity, self-expression and personal satisfaction, and reinforcing essential relationships. These mirror arguments from an author-centered view of copyright, contending that moral rights, personal control, and private incentives are critical to the making and dissemination of creative work.

Arguments in favor of diminishing post-mortem control include changed circumstances, intergenerational equity, imperfect information, negative externalities, and the welfare of the beneficiaries. These arguments reflect concerns in copyright doctrine (and in intellectual property doctrine generally) that dead-hand control not fetter IP’s mission of enriching science and art for the benefit of society and the public domain. Authors’ rights are an intermediary step and can be trumped by the ultimate goal of society-wide human flourishing.

Subotnik concludes by embracing the “benefit the beneficiaries” rule, highlighting the policy of benefiting the living in both trust and intellectual property law. Subotnik persuasively argues that living decision-makers should be given more deference to manage artistic assets. If our concern is whether the work will be read, viewed, or put in contexts in which it can be maximally appreciated – all copyright interests to be sure – “[t]here is no reason to think that a dead author is in a better position to track a work’s success in the marketplace and ensure its place in history than are the living.”

And when the author’s wishes were to restrain use of the work – quashing its enjoyment by audiences as well as its financial benefits for heirs – post-mortem instructions are antithetical to copyright interests of dissemination and cultural progress. “[Indeed] an author’s stringent controls on access and use of copyrighted materials can sound a death knell for a work” if not also an author’s continued literary existence. And so Professor Subotnik puts a thumb on the scale for heirs to override authorial control.

Subotnik provides one caveat, however: when there is a risk that artists will destroy works before their deaths out of fear their heirs won’t shepherd the work as desired, following post-mortem instructions makes better sense. Because society has an interest in preserving work – unpublished or published, personal documents of all sorts (letters and journals) – dead-hand guided preservation, which could last up to 70 years after death, is better than the alternative. Given that the public interest never dies, but authors do, I applaud this conclusion. Eventually the work will enter the public domain, and then dead-hand control ends.

Of course, control by heirs (as opposed to dead authors) is not necessarily in the public interest. But by favoring freer use by the living, Professor Subotnik refers to living successors as well as living audiences and fair users. Indeed, this article ably engages various interdisciplinary dimensions (of literary studies, trusts and estates, and intellectual property) relying on important prior work by Deven Desai, Ray Madoff, and Robert Spoo, whose scholarship grounds these debates in the public interest and social welfare. Subotnik’s contribution enriches these debates and should guide future policy in this area.

Cite as: Jessica Silbey, Speaking from the Grave. Should Copyright Listen?, JOTWELL (September 19, 2016) (reviewing Eva E. Subotnik, Artistic Control After Death, 92 Wash. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017), available at SSRN),

The Plural Tort Structure of Copyright Law

Patrick Goold, Unbundling the 'Tort' of Copyright Infringement, 102 Va. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

What kind of legal wrong is copyright infringement? Scholars tend to unreflectively regard copyright infringement as a tort. In his elegant and insightful recent article, Unbundling the ‘Tort’ of Copyright Infringement, Patrick Goold complicates this received wisdom by applying rigorous conceptual analysis to a body of law—copyright—that is rarely analyzed in those terms. In so doing, Goold invites us to see copyright law in a new and more nuanced light, and also seeks to show that courts’ purportedly scattered approach to infringement may not be so incoherent after all.

The central premise of Goold’s article is simple: the orthodox view of copyright infringement as a single tort mischaracterizes how courts actually resolve infringement cases. Calling on Prosser’s classic disaggregation of privacy into a “gallery of torts,” Goold identifies five different “copy-torts”: consumer copying, competitor copying, expressive privacy invasion, artistic reputation injury, and breach of creative control. Each of these different copy-torts, Goold argues, reflects the distinct interests that courts seek to vindicate using copyright law.

Goold’s copy-torts insight is descriptively fascinating on its own terms, but also delivers numerous important insights. First, this approach lays bare the underappreciated complexity of the tort of copyright infringement itself, belying the standard view that all copyright infringement amounts to the same cause of action protecting the same kinds of interest. Second, and more ambitiously, Goold presents his copy-torts framework as a positive theory of copyright. That is, he argues that this lens can explain why and how courts appear to resolve infringement cases in radically different ways. Goold’s copy-tort framework shows that this variation is not inconsistent, but in fact a logical response to the need to respond differently to the distinct copy-torts at issue in different kinds of infringement cases.

This article is a sparkling example of the value that conceptual analysis can deliver in copyright (and other fields of legal study). Goold’s thesis is simple and elegant, and bears enormous promise as an analytical tool, one that can help us understand the idea of infringement better by providing a structural tool for elucidating the very different interests that exclusive rights in works of authorship may seek to protect.

Goold’s disaggregation of copyright torts also invites consideration of this approach in other areas. For example, the dominant physical property tort is trespass, which addresses all unauthorized entry to land regardless of the owner’s motivation for bringing suit. Trespass to land protects a multiplicity of interests—economic concerns, dignitary interests, privacy—in much the same way that the unitary tort of copyright infringement currently does. Goold’s insight about copyright suggests that property scholarship would do well to think about the value of recalibrating property’s torts to better reflect the different interests they protect.

The claim that the torts of copyright infringement capture a multiplicity of interests that may justify different infringement standards is an important one. Goold’s aim in this article is more descriptive than normative: He argues not that we should reframe infringement doctrine in terms of copy-torts, but that copy-torts framework is already implicitly at work in doctrine, and that the plural tort structure of copyright infringement explains extant divergences in judicial approaches to copyright law (and, moreover, that these approaches reflect “the correct legal standards in infringement actions”).

There is a core of truth to this claim. In many instances, courts’ different approaches to infringement seem to track on to different interests of owners. This alone stands as an important and novel contribution to copyright scholarship. But whether the copy-tort framework also explains how judges resolve infringement cases is much harder to prove. In making this argument, Goold’s case may have been stronger if he had more often wrestled with cases that complicate his theory, in addition to listing the many cases that support his claim. Consider, for example, the distinction between consumer copying (which he claims typically does not entail proof of reduced consumer demand for the plaintiff’s work) and competitor copying (which he argues typically does entail such proof).

This claim lies in tension with numerous cases in which courts have held defendants liable for infringement asserted by competitors even when there was no evidence that the infringement inflicted any negative effects on third parties. To take just one example, in Walt Disney Co. v. Filmation Associates, a court held that the defendants’ unauthorized use of film storyboards created by the plaintiff, a competitor film production company, amounted to copyright infringement even though its use did not (and indeed could not) divert any consumer demand away from the plaintiff’s movies. This and other cases do not pose a fatal challenge to Goold’s thesis, of course. All descriptive theories have to meet the challenge of explaining cases that do not seem to fit, and it is a measure of the breadth of Goold’s claim that it invites these kinds of hard questions.

Copy-torts provide an important conceptual tool for making sense of infringement analysis going forward even if the theory still requires refinement. They provide a coherent and useful account of the different interests at play in infringement cases, even if the distinctions between the copy-torts are not entirely hermetic. Goold’s insightful and excellently written article represents a major contribution to our understanding of copyright law and litigation that scholars and lawyers alike will find useful in disentangling some of copyright’s most difficult doctrinal challenges.

Cite as: David Fagundes, The Plural Tort Structure of Copyright Law, JOTWELL (August 4, 2016) (reviewing Patrick Goold, Unbundling the 'Tort' of Copyright Infringement, 102 Va. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN),

Patent Law’s Gordian Knot

Jonathan S. Masur, The Use and Misuse of Patent Licenses, 110 Nw. U. L. Rev. 115 (2015).

When a patent holder does not manufacture or sell a product, it cannot seek “lost profits” in the event the patent is infringed. Rather, courts must determine a “reasonable royalty”—generally, what an infringer hypothetically would have paid if the patent holder had licensed the patent, assuming it was valid and infringed, in the private market before the infringer began its unlawful acts. Such market rates are usually determined by examining other licenses for the patent-in-suit, or for patents sufficiently similar to the patent-in-suit.

In the brilliant article The Use and Misuse of Patent Licenses, Jonathan S. Masur unpacks what is often expressed but not suitably explained: that reasonable royalty determinations in the law of patent damages are substantially circular, leading to paradoxes and other conundrums that cannot easily be solved. The basic intuition is straightforward. Courts attempt to value patents in reasonable royalty determinations by looking to the market. Yet, market actors must bargain in the shadow of the law. Hence, a circularity.

For ordinary private law scholars, the response generally would be, “Who cares?” Assuming violations of the law are not a regular occurrence, then the market can still set reliable rates sufficiently divorced from judicial pronouncements. Slightly modifying an example in Masur’s article, take for instance the tort of conversion. This cause of action allows private owners of goods that have been stolen, or simply borrowed and damaged substantially, to recover the fair market value of the good from the wrongdoer.

In conversion, determining the fair market value of an ordinary good—say a bicycle that has been stolen—isn’t too difficult. Just assess what the good is selling for on average, and damages are fairly well-determined. However, imagine that the government and courts decided today that conversion was the only legal action owners could take for damages if their goods were stolen and the only punishment inflicted on the wrongdoer (i.e., criminal theft is abolished). In this instance, there would be a huge incentive to steal the bicycle in the street, because the worst that could happen for the wrongdoer is paying the fair market value of the bicycle (setting aside litigation costs for a moment), and the best would be getting the bicycle for essentially nothing. As Masur indicates, such an instance is akin to a “heads I win, tails I tie” outcome, not providing much of a deterrent.

The result is that the price of bicycles would fall—because they could be easily stolen or, alternatively, to compensate for increased amounts spent on locks and other theft-prevention devices (which I assume, for sake of argument, are separate products from the bicycle). Of course, the price could fall only so far because the marginal cost to produce a bicycle sets a minimum price floor. But, again, for the sake of argument, imagine that these costs are negligible. As prices fall, courts set the damages from conversion lower and lower, thereby increasing the incentive to steal bicycles even more. The feedback loop between the market and courts would eventually cause the price of bicycles to decline rapidly, potentially killing the market itself.

What a bizarre hypothetical, one might quip. Well, bizarre perhaps for bicycles, but not for patented inventions. Why? As Masur insightfully recognizes, for unpracticed patents, a civil suit for reasonable royalties is typically the only way to recover for infringement. In this regard, since the Supreme Court’s eBay decision, for most patentees seeking reasonable royalties, injunctive relief is unavailable, implying that the only remedy is money damages—for past and future infringement. Next, because the marginal costs of producing an additional good covered by a patent are often small—think pharmaceutical drugs—there is often no hard floor to stop prices from falling, at least ex post. Finally, unlike bicycles, patents are relatively unique assets, making them very difficult to value, and the key information to determine reasonable royalties lies with the parties, who tend to massively exaggerate or undervalue patent value, as the case may be, via their experts in court.

Thus, Masur properly concludes that the usual way out of the circularity dilemma of contract and tort remedies is not typically available for reasonable royalties. Masur masterfully spells out this argument in extensive detail, all the while digging quite a deep conceptual hole for the ostensible foundation of a sizeable share of patent law remedies as practiced. Like conversion absent criminal or other sanctions, as courts look to the marketplace and as infringers take their chances, reasonable royalties will generally spiral downward to the potential demise of patents altogether.

Further complicating this landscape, Masur rightly contends, patentees—realizing as much—will, like someone engaging in a fraudulent insurance scheme, do all they can to inflate the nominal value of licenses so that courts impose damages greater than the “fair market value” of the patent. For example, in addition to providing a naked license to the patent, patentees can offer consulting services, know-how, or other benefits but price them into the apparent “royalty rate.” For patentees that sell products to licensees, they can inflate the royalty rate and discount product prices. As courts look to these increased licensing rates, the market will respond by increasing the rates on ordinary licenses, ballooning licensing awards in the courts.

Perhaps all of these effects negate each other? Unfortunately (for us), Masur is again dead on the mark: “It may be tempting to conclude that these effects will balance one another out, or at least come close enough to doing so that it is safe to ignore them. But this would be error. It would be pure fortuity….” (P. 144.) Of course, these negating effects – as well as the other factors used to determine reasonable royalties – while not fully in balance, do keep the system from completely collapsing. With that said, there is little belief that current royalty determinations are fairly accurate, even on average, across large numbers of cases.

So, what is the upshot? Although Masur recounts that it is usually “in the nature of legal scholarship to write comedies rather than tragedies” (P. 156), reasonable royalties appear to be the recalcitrant exception. Masur suggests in this and later work that courts wholly abandon reliance on comparable licenses. Yet, he and others have yet to propose workable alternatives that suitably further the aims of the patent system. While actual valuation of the benefit of the patented invention relative to the next best alternative would escape these dilemmas, estimating these amounts is notoriously difficult.

So is there no hope? Instead of attempting to cut this Gordian Knot, I have proposed in previous work that we essentially burn it. Rather than restoring the patent holder to some mythical “state of nature of the market,” courts would do better to focus on damages that adequately reward the patentee for its innovative contribution so as to set appropriate ex ante incentives to innovate. Market transactions may be one input into such a determination, but other factors, such as the patentee’s research and development costs, commercialization costs, opportunity costs, and risk of failure would arguably better calibrate with the aim of patent law to promote innovation. More on that in future work. In the meantime, we are left with the maelstrom so ably explicated by Masur. Anyone seeking to understand the precise headwinds, tailwinds, and sidewinds of this storm is well-advised to read Masur’s meticulous depiction.

Cite as: Ted Sichelman, Patent Law’s Gordian Knot, JOTWELL (July 7, 2016) (reviewing Jonathan S. Masur, The Use and Misuse of Patent Licenses, 110 Nw. U. L. Rev. 115 (2015)),

Copyright’s Interpretive Turn

Zahr Said, Reforming Copyright Interpretation, 28 Harv. J. of L. & Tech. 469 (2015).

Zahr Said’s Reforming Copyright Interpretation puts its finger on an important, yet little studied, aspect of copyright law: judicial interpretation. It pushes the ball quite a bit by providing a descriptive taxonomy of courts’ interpretive approaches in copyright law, advancing and defending an interpretive approach that it considers best overall, and applying and exemplifying its framework and arguments with a good number of cases while situating it all within a larger body of law and literature scholarship. For me, that’s tons of progress in one article, and the reason why I like it lots.

In resolving copyright disputes, judges must make interpretive decisions. Decisions regarding interpretation are often outcome-relevant – for example, when they lead a judge to decide whether an issue is a matter of law or fact or whether expert testimony may be admitted or not. These decisions can also be outcome-determinative – for example, when a judge makes an interpretive decision that resolves a case on summary judgment or finds an allegedly infringing use to be fair. The interpretive judgment that these decisions involve often flies under readers’ radars. Said draws our attention to judges’ interpretive choices and to the systemic effect that they have, or could have if they were to be conducted appropriately, on copyright law.

Descriptively, Said organizes judges’ interpretive choices along two axes. First, judges decide what to focus on in their interpretation. In doing so, they choose a point on a Text/Context spectrum. By analogy to patent law, this could be thought of as the proper mix of intrinsic and extrinsic evidence in claim construction. “Text” here stands for any interpretive decision drawn out of, or relying on, the copyrighted work itself—be it textual, pictorial, musical, etc. “Context” stands for interpretive decisions relying on evidence outside the work such as the author’s intent, expert opinion, or readers’ perception or response.

For example, a court may need to decide whether a work is substantially similar to another. It may make this determination by comparing the two texts. Or, it can rely on the author’s (or alleged infringer’s) intent, the lay reader’s view, community perceptions, expert opinion, or even the court’s own subjective impression of the works. Each choice vests the interpretive authority over the text in a different source. This decision can be outcome-determinative: a judge reviewing a defendant’s motion for summary judgment may grant it based on reviewing the text alone and conclude that no similarities exist. But if the judge’s interpretive approach gives weight to the author’s intentions or to audience perceptions, then she may deny the motion.

Second, judges choose an interpretive method along an Analysis/Intuition axis. The interpretive method helps the judge reach her legal conclusion from her chosen source of authority over the work. “Analysis” stands for careful explanation of the judge’s reasoning, applying doctrine to facts, a practice that may constrain a court’s future analysis or subject it to appellate review. An example of analysis is Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co. (SDNY 2005), where the court identified three potential loci of originality in photographs generally, and then moved to determine whether any of the three were present in the photograph before it. Alternatively, courts can assert conclusions about the works at issue that appear to be based on nothing more than intuition. An example of intuition is Roth Greeting Cards v. United Card Co. (9th Cir. 1970), where the court found infringement by noting that the defendant’s greeting card copied the plaintiff’s “total concept and feel.”

Underlying Said’s perspective is the notion that interpretation is inevitable. Courts engage in it whether they acknowledge it or not. Said wants judges to be aware of the interpretive phase of their decision-making process, and to choose and defend their points of choice along the two axes deliberately. Said suggests that it would be better if doctrine provided judges with an interpretive roadmap – perhaps like patent doctrine does – rather than assuming that judges already own the enterprise of formulating interpretive methodology.  An agreed-upon methodology would enhance the enterprise’s predictability and fairness, and subject it to more effective appellate review.

Said laments judges’ tendency to view artistic, expressive, “nontechnical” copyrighted works as “self-interpreting” or “facially clear” and thus semiotically accessible and in no need of interpretation. This is different from the case of more technical works, such as software, where courts recognize the need for interpretation and for following an interpretive framework. Said resists this technical-artistic distinction for interpretation. Every text is complex, and meaning is not clear on the face of the work. Accessing works requires an act of interpretation.

Normatively, Said provides two prescriptions for a desirable approach to copyright interpretation. First, she suggests that judges lean toward the text side on the Text/Context continuum. Text is an easy-to-locate, objective source that both parties have access to. Focusing on text tends to minimize the amount of evidence presented in trial, and thus minimizes litigation costs and trial uncertainty. Second, Said prefers that judges use analysis over intuition because of current doctrinal confusion with the “total concept and feel” test, because different judges have different intuitions, and because intuition allows little ground for appellate review. Analysis, on the other hand, tends to create precedents, interpretive roadmaps, and case law consistency.

Said acknowledges that her prescription-favoring, text-based formalism may resolve most infringement cases, but that it may not suffice for cases turning on issues such as contested authorship or transfers of copyrights. Here, courts’ decision-making will often have to go outside the four corners of the work, such as by considering the parties’ intentions and community norms. Said acknowledges fair use as another context in which text-based formalism may prove inadequate, and where courts will have to look at contextual considerations, such as social meaning in finding a work transformative.

Said’s work is rich and intriguing. Paralleling its insight and direction, it also opens up new questions and possible extensions, and here I would like to mention two. First is a possible empirical extension. As for the descriptive portion of the article, it would be interesting to know what more could be said to portray a more accurate descriptive model of courts’ interpretive choices. Take the Text/Context axis, for example: what ideal points do courts tend to choose in deciding cases? If I had to guess, a uniform distribution would seem unlikely: while I can see courts choosing points ranging from the text end of the spectrum up to about the midpoint or even beyond, I would be surprised if many cases gave exclusive or predominant weight to context, and little or no weight to the text. The article’s descriptive insight could be augmented here with an empirical component. Further, one may wonder about whether courts’ choices of ideal points along the two axes in particular cases are independent of each other. Again, if I had to guess (and as the article recognizes in passing), I would think that there is some correlation. It seems that choosing a point involving a high degree of intuition and little analysis on that spectrum would correlate with a preference of text over context. Again, mapping these correlations would enhance the article’s descriptive power.

A second possible extension may be tying Said’s work on copyright interpretation to other bodies of IP. The framework might be extendable to patent and trademark laws, for example, perhaps with some adjustment. In patent law, the Text/Context axis seems readily applicable, as it can be used to model courts’ and commentators’ preferences as between intrinsic and extrinsic evidence in claim construction, for example. What about the Intuition/Analysis axis? How many patent law summary judgments could be described as founded on little more than intuition as to the meaning of patent claims? Can patent courts be characterized as distinguishing between “simple” and “complex” technologies, so that patent cases reflect (an implicit) judgment that the former require little interpretation of claims while leaving more room for interpretation in the latter category (paralleling copyright courts’ distinguishing between technical and nontechnical works)? Trademark infringement’s test calls for a mix of textual and contextual considerations, such that its choice and direction could be mapped using that axis as well. Perhaps the framework could be used across all IP fields, even if the normatively desirable “ideal point” may differ among them, and perhaps it is even of broader application in interpretation generally. These are for sure laborious and non-trivial questions that go well beyond the scope of Said’s article, which already does a lot. They are, however, a testament to the article’s utility and insight.

Cite as: Dotan Oliar, Copyright’s Interpretive Turn, JOTWELL (June 10, 2016) (reviewing Zahr Said, Reforming Copyright Interpretation, 28 Harv. J. of L. & Tech. 469 (2015)),

Is it Time to Overrule the Trademark Classification Scheme?

Jake Linford, Are Trademarks Ever Fanciful?, 105 Geo. L.J. (forthcoming), available at SSRN.

Trademark law protects distinctive marks: ones that identify the source of goods or services and distinguish them from others in the marketplace. But how should courts determine whether consumers view a mark as distinctive? In an attempt to provide some analytical rigor to this essential question, courts have developed a complicated two-prong test: they look to both “inherent distinctiveness” (i.e., linguistic uniqueness) and “acquired distinctiveness” (i.e., whether consumers have come to see the mark as distinctive of source). Inherent distinctiveness for word marks is based on the so-called Abercrombie spectrum (named after the 1976 2d Cir. case that most famously articulated it), which classifies marks from most to least distinctive as fanciful (KODAK cameras), arbitrary (APPLE computers), suggestive (COPPERTONE suntan lotion), descriptive (AMERICAN airlines), or generic (“apple” for apples). Marks like AMERICAN can become strong, protectable marks only by developing “acquired distinctiveness”; marks like COPPERTONE and APPLE are presumed to be protectable at birth; and coined marks like KODAK are the strongest of all.

As Barton Beebe notes in his casebook, Abercrombie‘s “influence on U.S. and even foreign trademark law cannot be overstated.” But Abercrombie‘s foundation has been slowly crumbling. For example, in a 2009 study, Thomas Lee and colleagues found that consumers are far more influenced by how and where a mark is placed on a box than by where the mark falls on the Abercrombie spectrum. Rebecca Tushnet has explained that Abercrombie “lacks empirical foundation” and is out of step with basic marketing knowledge, such as that an ostensibly fanciful mark like VIAGRA is already imbued with “suggestions of virility, viability, and Niagara Falls (a classic sexual image).” And now, in an impressive trifecta of recent articles, Jake Linford has further dismantled the key theoretical assumptions underlying the Abercrombie classification scheme for word marks.

Linford has tackled Abercrombie from all sides: First, in A Linguistic Justification for ‘Generic’ Trademarks, Linford argued that categorically denying protection to “generic” marks ignores processes of language change through which once-generic terms can acquire source significance. He then moved to the middle of the spectrum with The False Dichotomy Between Suggestive and Descriptive Trademarks, which drew on “semantic shift” research to explain that suggestive and descriptive marks are likely to confuse consumers in similar ways. Linford argued that suggestive marks, like descriptive marks, should be protected only upon a showing of acquired distinctiveness rather than receiving automatic protection. Most recently, in Are Trademarks Ever Fanciful?, he attacks the other end of the spectrum, arguing that courts are wrong to assume that made-up words are empty vessels without source significance that should receive automatic, robust protection.

The key to Linford’s argument on fanciful marks is research on “sound symbolism,” or the strong connection between word sound and word meaning. For example, most people think that a table named MAL is larger than one named MIL, and that a product named TAKETE is spikier than one named MALUMA. Want your product to seem small and fast? Choose the vowel /i/ over /u/, voiceless consonants like /t/ over voiced ones like /d/, fricatives like /s/ over vocal stops like /k/. One recent review of this literature concluded that “the sounds of words can convey meaning apart from their actual definitions, and this meaning can systematically bias perceptions and judgments.”

Marketing research has demonstrated that sound symbolism can be used to choose more effective trademarks. Consumers prefer fictitious brand names that match perceived attributes of a product, such as GODAN over GIDAN for a dark beer, NELLAR over NULLAR for a fast Internet service, KUTUM over KITUM for male deodorant, GOMMEL over GIMMEL for SUVs (but vice versa for convertibles). Marketers use this research when coining fanciful trademarks. By cataloging the sound symbolism literature, Linford makes a strong case that fanciful trademarks are not empty vessels: rather, they “trigger powerful associations in the minds of consumers, which can be used to transmit both source- and product-related information.”

What are the implications of sound symbolism for trademark law? As Linford explains, this research undermines the justifications courts have offered for granting strong protection to fanciful marks, and it can impose unjustified costs on competitors. “Courts often find similarity between a fanciful mark and a competitor’s mark to indicate bad faith adoption by the competitor,” but Linford argues that “sound symbolism provides a reason for the competitor to adopt a mark with some similar characteristics: to communicate product features to consumers.”

At the very least, in light of Linford’s work, courts should discount the use of similar sound symbols by alleged trademark infringers rather than presuming bad faith. Linford also tentatively proposes “[t]wo more radical shifts”: requiring every mark to show acquired distinctiveness in order to receive protection, and holding that some sound symbols are “essentially functional” and thus not protectable. He acknowledges the concern that weaker protection for fanciful marks would lead to more firms choosing descriptive marks, which might ultimately impose even greater costs on competitors, but he argues that “sound symbolism is a phenomenon with real power” such that there may be little competitive difference. And while abandoning Abercrombie would be a big change in practice, there are few trademark scholars who strongly defend this doctrine. Rather than advocating artificial linguistic distinctions, scholars have increasingly argued that trademark law should be more attuned to how consumers actually view different types of marks. (An excellent recent example is Alexandra Roberts’s explanation of why Abercrombie does not reflect consumer perceptions of whether hashtags like #IceBucketChallenge are source-indicating trademarks.)

Perhaps a bigger concern with Linford’s sustained attack on Abercrombie is that it would increase administrative costs. Under current law, choosing an “inherently distinctive” suggestive, arbitrary, or fanciful mark is a shortcut around the costs of developing evidence of acquired distinctiveness. And the categorical bar on generic marks makes it easy for courts to explain why certain marks are undeserving of protection no matter how much consumers have come to view them as source-indicating. But the lower administrative cost of a bright-line rule over a more flexible standard is of little comfort when the error costs associated with the rule outweigh that administrative cost savings, and Linford has provided numerous reasons to suspect high error costs at each point of the Abercrombie spectrum.

Would abandoning Abercrombie and just looking for evidence of acquired distinctiveness actually lead to lower error costs? It would at least focus courts on the right question, but trademark cases rarely involve reliable evidence for assessing how consumers actually view a mark. Consumer surveys are expensive and unreliable, so courts often turn to circumstantial evidence such as advertising spending on the asserted mark, but such evidence is only a very weak proxy for how distinctive the mark actually has become to consumers.

What courts really need is a simpler way to tell whether consumers associate a mark with a certain product. In The Google Shortcut to Trademark Law, I argued that one cost-effective way to do this is to look at online search results, which allow us to collapse the two prongs of the distinctiveness test: if a word mark is distinctive (i.e., if consumers tend to primarily associate it with a certain product), then most of the top search results will use that mark to refer to that product. I don’t know whether this test will gain traction, or whether better consumer surveys will be developed, or whether creative scholars (or judges) will come up with an entirely new way to assess distinctiveness. But Linford does a terrific job explaining why it is a mistake to stick with the status quo.

Cite as: Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Is it Time to Overrule the Trademark Classification Scheme?, JOTWELL (May 6, 2016) (reviewing Jake Linford, Are Trademarks Ever Fanciful?, 105 Geo. L.J. (forthcoming), available at SSRN),

How Do Creators Respond to Risk?

Andres Sawicki, Risky IP , Univ. of Miami Legal Research Paper No, 16-18 (2016), available at SSRN.

Intellectual property laws govern activities that are inherently risky. Authors and inventors can only estimate the consumer demand for their contributions. And many creative activities run the risk of infringing existing IP rights. Accordingly, it is essential for policymakers and scholars to understand how creators think about risk.

To date, most people who have written about IP law and risk have assumed that creators will be risk averse. In a new paper, Andres Sawicki challenges these accounts and argues that the kinds of people that IP law typically regulates—creative people—tend to be risk seeking. Accordingly, where others saw the risk inherent in IP as a problem, Sawicki sees it as potentially beneficial.

Sawicki begins by discussing the various features of IP that involve risk, including the fundamental riskiness of all market-based creative ventures as well as IP doctrines such as patent law’s definiteness requirement and copyright law’s fair use standard that introduce additional uncertainty. When previous scholars have noted these issues, they have tended to assume that creators faced with risk will tend to be risk averse, because, after all, most people are risk averse. Thus, most people prefer receiving $100 to playing a lottery in which they have equal chances of receiving $200 or nothing.

Sawicki reviews a large and growing body of literature from psychologists who study creativity that suggests that, at least for creative people, this account is not entirely true. Research suggests that more creative people tend to have a greater tolerance for risk than do less creative people and that a fundamental feature of successful creativity is the ability to recognize and capitalize on risks. Sawicki is careful to note that the literature in this area is not entirely conclusive, but he makes a plausible case that successful creators are likely to view risk and uncertainty differently from other folks.

Based on this claim and a set of important simplifying assumptions, Sawicki then offers a number of testable hypotheses about how creators’ risk preferences will influence their behavior. He suggests that creators will tend to seek out opportunities to engage in activities with uncertain benefits over otherwise equivalent ones with certain benefits. And he suggests that risky environments are more conducive to creativity.

If these claims are correct, Sawicki argues, creators’ higher risk tolerance could make IP-style incentives a more efficient proposition than previously recognized. Relative to a stable salary, prize, or tax incentive of equivalent value, the probabilistic and uncertain value of IP rights might ultimately generate higher creative output. In addition, Sawicki argues that efforts to make IP rights more certain may undermine some of the value that we get from risk-seeking creators.

As always, and as Sawicki recognizes, the devil will be in the details. Sawicki’s claims rest on various simplifying assumptions that may turn out to be wrong (a prospect he openly admits). For example, he assumes that a person’s risk preferences in one domain (such as artistic creativity) will be similar to those in another domain (such as financial risk). And he tends to assume that the framing effects noted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky may have minimal effects on creators’ decisions. Whether or not these assumptions are correct is a matter for future empirical research, and Sawicki’s paper has done a terrific job of pointing out the most promising directions for that work.

If Sawicki’s descriptive account of creator behavior is correct, IP law may be able to take advantage of creators’ risk tolerance to generate more incentive bang for its buck. But creativity and risk taking are not always valuable. When creators enter a field they face a variety of existing IP rights that may impinge on their goals. They can choose to license those rights or adopt the more risky strategy of designing around them. To the extent that downstream creators are excessively risk seeking, then, they will tend to choose the latter option at inefficient rates. Instead of licensing existing solutions, they will waste R&D resources in risky ventures. Ultimately, however, IP scholarship needs an accurate account of how creators are likely to respond to these and other risks.

Cite as: Christopher J. Buccafusco, How Do Creators Respond to Risk?, JOTWELL (April 12, 2016) (reviewing Andres Sawicki, Risky IP , Univ. of Miami Legal Research Paper No, 16-18 (2016), available at SSRN),

Creative Strategies for Beefing Up Copyright Enforcement

Eric Priest, Acupressure: The Emerging Role of Market Ordering in Global Copyright Enforcement, 68 SMU L. Rev. 169 (2015), available at SSRN.

Corporate copyright owners based in the United States have been frustrated by the prevalence of piracy in China and in certain other fast-growing markets, and that frustration has led to three primary responses. The copyright industries have (1) supported proposed legislation that would impose enforcement obligations on U.S. parties, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act; (2) advanced expansive interpretions of the enforcement jurisdiction of the International Trade Commission; and (3) deployed technological protection measures.

In his new article, Acupressure: The Emerging Role of Market Ordering in Global Copyright Enforcement, Professor Priest identifies two additional strategies that seem to have promise. These strategies rely on pressuring certain intermediaries that hold the power to deny infringers access to the markets they seek to serve. Presenting these as case studies, he then abstracts away to model how and when market-based pressure on intermediaries or customers – the “Acupressure” in the title – are likely to be effective. He concludes by revisiting familiar critiques of copyright enforcement through private ordering and integrates these into his analysis of the public policy ramifications of these new developments.

After explaining why attempts to police foreign conduct in U.S. courts has largely failed, Professor Priest introduces the first case involving the online video market in China. In a very short period of time, two of China’s largest sources of online videos changed their advertising-based business model from one that relied on infringement to one that relies on licenses from copyright owners. Why incur these substantial costs when these service providers enjoy certain limits on liability that closely resemble those that U.S. intermediaries enjoy and when the threat of judicial enforcement for transgressions is negligible?

According to Professor Priest, these services’ most valuable advertisers – multinational corporations – faced internal and external pressures to dissociate their brands from platforms identified as pirate sites. He supports this assertion with some original reporting based on interviews with executives at the two companies. He emphasizes that after these two companies became licensees, their incentives aligned with the advertisers and the copyright owners, which led them to use legal process to pressure their unlicensed competitors, such as Baidu. He also persuasively explains why alternative theories of causation are less plausible.

His second case involves use of theories of unfair competition in the United States to block market access to foreign manufacturers that use infringing software in their operations. The theory is that companies that rely on copyright infringement for a critical input into their business operations enjoy an unfair advantage that allows them to artificially lower prices. The theory is accepted in “anti-IT theft” statutes in force in certain U.S. states and in case law that deems this an unfair trade practice under a state’s mini-FTC Act. Professor Priest cites examples in which foreign manufacturers agreed to license their software in response to threatened loss of market access.

From these examples, Professor Priest derives models of alternative enforcement. Most prominent is the “market pressure” model applicable “[i]n jurisdictions in which the state’s influence over infringers is weak, the state may be replaced in the enforcement chain by a powerful ‘third party’ with greater influence over the infringer.” The essential elements are that a third party with sufficient leverage exists, that the enforcement targets belong to a relatively small, tight-knit group to form compliance norms that can be internally monitored and enforced, that enforcement is ongoing either through the third party or other community members, and that the complying members are incentivized to invest in enforcement against defectors.

This model better conforms to the Chinese video market case study than to the use of unfair competition in the United States because the users of infringing software are a large and diffuse group. Professor Priest highlights Washington state’s law as having an innovative feature because it targets retailers in the United States who sell products derived from uses of infringing software, analogous to regulations prohibiting the sale of products produced with child labor or in violation of certain environmental norms. By shifting the target, this strategy pressures the retailer, such as Walmart, to exert copyright compliance pressure throughout its supply chain. But, query whether this law would survive a challenge under the Dormant Commerce Clause.

Professor Priest is more sanguine than I am about the desirability of these new enforcement strategies from a public policy perspective, but his article does a great service by bringing these to light, by engaging with concerns about non-judicial enforcement of copyright norms, and by analyzing the key ingredients that contribute to these strategies’ relative success.

Cite as: Michael W. Carroll, Creative Strategies for Beefing Up Copyright Enforcement, JOTWELL (March 17, 2016) (reviewing Eric Priest, Acupressure: The Emerging Role of Market Ordering in Global Copyright Enforcement, 68 SMU L. Rev. 169 (2015), available at SSRN),

What Scope for Patented Designs?

Sarah Burstein, The Patented Design, 83 Tenn. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

Ornamental designs of articles of manufacture have been patentable subject matter in the U.S. since 1842. About 400,000 such patents have issued in the years since the birth of this regime, two-thirds of which have been granted since 2000. Scholarly interest in design patents has historically been quite modest, but has been heating up lately. This is due in no small part to the epic battle between Apple and Samsung over Apple’s claim that Samsung’s phones infringed some of Apple’s design patents. Samsung has asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the designs at issue are really “ornamental” and thus properly covered by design patents. In addition, Samsung wants the Court to review the award to Apple of its total profits on the sales of the infringing phones in the amount of $399 million.

The Supreme Court has not reviewed a design patent law since 1894. The Court’s 1871 decision in Gorham v. White articulated a test for infringement that is still influential today. Gorham did not raise difficult issues of patent scope because the defendant in that had embodied a clearly ornamental patented design for silverware in directly competing products.

The question about ornamentality in Apple v. Samsung is important. One can only hope the Supreme Court will take the case and answer this question. Professor Burstein’s new article poses two other questions about design patent scope. One is whether a design patent can be infringed if the design is embodied in a different product than that depicted in the patent. The other is whether a design patent can be infringed by a visual representation of the design not embodied in an article of manufacture. She concludes that other-product-embodiments and visual-representations should not infringe design patents, both as a matter of statutory interpretation and as a matter of policy.

Burstein convinced me on both points. What I loved best about the article, though, was the rich discussion about what the word “design” means in the context of design patents. Burstein observes that the word design is “mercurial,” serving both as a verb and as a noun, a process as well as a product. Design has a dual meaning: the look of products and the preparation of instructions for the production of those products. Designs for articles of manufacture are about blending form and function. When articles of manufacture are beautiful, that beauty results from this blending. The product and its design are inseparable. These insights about design inform Burstein’s interpretation about the proper scope of design patents.

Burstein discusses some cases that recently posed other-product-embodiment and visual representation issues. The cases are so colorful that one might have imagined them to be improbable professorial hypotheticals.

In Kellman, the plaintiff owned a design patent on a novelty foam hat in the shape of a wing-nut so that fans of the Detroit Red Wings team could express how nuts they were about their favorite team. The wing-nut visual pun caught on. One firm printed a wing-nut design on t-shirt, and Coca-Cola impressed a wing-nut design on bottle caps. Kellman sued both entitites. Under the Gorham test for design patent infringement, neither claim was plausible.

Gorham directs the trier of fact to consider whether an ordinary observer would the designs at issue to be so substantially the same as to induce customers to purchase the defendant’s product supposing it to be the plaintiff’s. No one who wanted a wing-nut hat would be deceived into buying Coca-Cola because of the wing-nut on the bottlecap. The t-shirt claim was arguably stronger because both products are items that humans wear. Yet, it was implausible that anyone who wanted the hat would be deceived into buying the t-shirt instead.

The PS Products case was even stranger. The design patent at issue was for a stun-gun designed to be worn like brass knuckles. Its owner sued the maker of a videogame that included visual depictions of similar weapons. The District Court dismissed the case on the ground that no reasonable person would purchase the videogame believing he/she had purchased a stun-gun.

These decisions reject the view that design patents protect designs per se. Burstein argues that these cases were rightly decided and offers statutory, doctrinal, and policy reasons in support of her argument. What convinced me most, however, was her discussion earlier in the article about the inseparability of patented designs and their embodiments in articles of manufacture. If a designer thinks that a design can, in fact, be embodied in more than one kind of product, he/she should apply for more than one design patent. For it is a requirement that an applicant identify what kind of product is to embody the design.

Burstein would not, however, limit the scope of design patents to only those products specifically identified in the patent. She would favor a rule that extended design patent protection to products in the same general category. This part of the paper is less developed, but is consistent with her overall thesis.

Design patents are not copyrights; they do and should not protect designs per se. Having spent a great deal of time cogitating about the proper scope of copyright’s derivative work right, I appreciated Burstein’s project to do a comparable analysis of design patent scope. Bravo, Sarah.

Cite as: Pamela Samuelson, What Scope for Patented Designs?, JOTWELL (February 15, 2016) (reviewing Sarah Burstein, The Patented Design, 83 Tenn. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN),

A Lesson from the History of Italian Opera: Some Copyright Good/More Copyright Useless

Michela Giorcelli & Petra Moser, Copyright and Creativity – Evidence from Italian Opera (2015), available at SSRN.

Today opera fans in the United States are rich, old, and increasingly rare. But it wasn’t always that way. In the Eighteenth Century, opera was the closest thing to mass entertainment, especially in Italy. And that fact provides a platform for economists Michela Giorcelli and Petra Moser to say something interesting about the effect of copyright law on creativity. Giorcelli and Moser’s Copyright and Creativity – Evidence from Italian Operas, is a paper I liked, lots.

Giorcelli and Moser’s paper is a natural experiment using historical data surrounding an “external shock” – viz., Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of northern Italy between 1796 and 1802. The northern Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia adopted copyright laws in 1801, as a direct consequence of French rule. Six other Italian states studied by Giorcelli and Moser only began adopting copyright laws during a period that began a quarter-century later. Giorcelli and Moser collect historical data on 2,598 operas that premiered across the eight Italian states in question between 1770 and 1900, the most fertile years of Italian opera production, and a period that both precedes and follows the adoption of copyright by Lombardy and Venetia.

Comparisons across the period reveal a statistically significant increase in new operas produced in the states that adopted copyright in 1801. Giorcelli and Moser estimate that Lombardy and Venetia produced an average of 2.12 additional operas per year after 1801. This increase is relative to a baseline of 1.41 operas per state per year before 1801, thus yielding an apparent increase of approximately 150%, versus an increase in production of approximately 54% in the states that had not adopted copyright.

The authors then inquire whether the increase in number was accompanied by an increase in overall quality of the operas produced. Using other historical data sets, Giorcelli and Moser estimate a 4.6-fold increase in the production of historically popular operas in response to the adoption of copyright, and a ten-fold increase in the production of durably popular operas (i.e., those for which full-length recordings continue to be available on Amazon in 2014).

The data also shows that after Lombardy and Venetia adopted copyright, opera composers began to immigrate to those states. “Between 1801 and 1821, 43 composers who were born outside of Lombardy premiered an opera in that state. Another 13 composers born outside of Venetia premiered an opera in Venetia,” the study states. “By comparison, all other Italian states together only saw premieres by 5 composers who were born outside the state premiered their first opera in other Italian states without copyrights.”

In sum, assuming that the production of operas is a reasonable proxy for artistic and literary production generally – and I’m not so sure it is, but more on that later – the Giorcelli and Moser study suggests that the adoption of some reasonable copyright term provides a incentive that produces more creative output versus an environment in which there is no copyright protection and creative output is consequently more vulnerable to appropriation.

However, and importantly, the study also suggests that subsequent extension of the copyright terms from life of the author plus 10 years to life plus 40 had no clear effect on either the number or quality of operas produced. This second conclusion is particularly important because our contemporary debate is usually not whether to have copyright at all, but rather whether in extend already very long copyright terms. On that question, Giorcelli and Moser provide evidence that a bit of copyright is enough, and more copyright doesn’t necessarily lead to more creative production.

Of course, longer copyright terms do have a cost. They perpetuate monopolies, with all the social costs that monopolies typically produce, plus extra costs that arise when the spread of knowledge goods like books or even operas is restricted by monopoly’s high costs and scarcity. Cheap books help spread literacy. Cheap operas help spread cultural literacy. Both forms of learning enrich society. Copyright terms that are too long limit the spread of knowledge while producing little, if any, additional creative output.

I love the Giorcelli/Moser paper, but like any piece of empirical work, it raises methodological and data-quality questions. I want to focus on the latter for a moment.

The paper’s conclusions are only as strong as the data on which the researchers rely, and I would have liked to have seen more discussion of why we should trust the completeness of the records listing opera premiers during the period. Giorcelli and Moser consult multiple sources, but these are historical records from a often chaotic time and place in which it is not intuitively obvious that all premiers would have been recorded. If the rate at which the premiers failed to be recorded varied across the Italian states, that variance could cause a significant perturbation in the data, with corresponding effects on the results.

To be fair, Giorcelli and Moser use more modern sources to account for omissions from the historical records, but it is difficult to judge from the paper the confidence one reasonably can place in the amended records.

Let me close with a word on a methodological issue, which is, as I alluded to earlier, whether data suggesting that the adoption of copyright boosted the production of operas is representative of copyright’s likely effect on the production of other, more modern and commercially important, forms of creativity. My guess is that the answer depends on how closely the economics of a particular form of creativity resembles the economics of opera production. I would characterize opera as a form of creativity with very high fixed costs – authoring an opera represents a large and sustained creative effort, and the production of an opera is also costly (hiring singers, musicians, and opera halls is expensive, as are the often-lavish sets and costumes). Opera is, in short, a paradigm of the sort of creativity that is unlikely to flourish without some way to prevent copying, because the originator needs an extended period of exclusivity in order to earn back those high fixed costs.

Like opera, some modern forms of creativity feature very high fixed costs. For example, blockbuster movies. But other commercially important forms of creativity – for example, pop music – are produced with relatively low fixed costs. It’s cheap these days to write and record pop music. Is the sort of lengthy monopoly created by copyright law necessary to stimulate the production of this lower-cost creativity? On that question, the jury is still out.

Cite as: Christopher J. Sprigman, A Lesson from the History of Italian Opera: Some Copyright Good/More Copyright Useless, JOTWELL (January 15, 2016) (reviewing Michela Giorcelli & Petra Moser, Copyright and Creativity – Evidence from Italian Opera (2015), available at SSRN),