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Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars

September 6, 2009

Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, by copyright lawyer William Patry (see his related blog), was just released. Currently Senior Copyright Counsel at Google, Inc., Patry had a well-known copyright law blog, which he terminated last year, because he found the current state of copyright law too depressing to blog abou (as I posted about previously). So one might hope for a decent take on the copyright issue, especially given this comment on Amazon by the heroic IP foe Mike Masnick of TechDirt:

Patry’s insight into copyright law itself has long been established, but with this book he takes us deep into how the debate surrounding copyright law has been twisted and distorted. This is a must-read for anyone looking to understand the real issues in the copyright debate, both from the business-model and policy perspectives.

Alas, the summary would make one suspect the book’s soundness:

A centrist and believer in appropriately balanced copyright laws, Patry concludes that calls for strong copyright laws, just like calls for weak copyright laws, miss the point entirely: the only laws we need are effective laws, laws that further the purpose of encouraging the creation of new works and learning. Our current regime, unfortunately, creates too many bad incentives, leading to bad conduct. Just as President Obama has called for re-tooling and re-imagining the auto industry, Patry calls for a remaking of our copyright laws so that they may once again be respected.

Not good. Sure, he’s right that, as the Amazon description indicates, “copyright is a utilitarian government program–not a property or moral right.” But why does he think that copyright is not a natural or moral right? Because the Supreme Court has said so! As he wrote here, “In the United States, copyright is not a natural right, since the Supreme Court has said so twice, first in 1834 in Wheaton v. Peters, and then in 1932 in Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal”; see criticism here. Just another legal positivist. So he of course would think that, “As a government program, copyright must be regulated and held accountable to ensure it is serving its public purpose.” Whatever.

Since noting the above, I’ve since received the book (the book’s publisher, Oxford, is also mine and so sent me a copy gratis). It looks like a carefully done and well written work. It looks like it provides lots of ammo for our side–pointing out problems, excesses, abuses, fallacious pro-copyright arguments, and showing how it does not accomplish the goals set.

But it is a bit meandering, not grounded in any coherent or fundamental principles; it accepts too many positivist and statist bromides; and worst, it accepts the basic legitimacy of the state’s encouraging innovation by such tricks. On the other hand, it at least argues that the test should be whether it does create the extra wealth it claims to, and that the burden is on those who advocate copyright; so in a way it leaves the door open to total abolition (I think; haven’t read the whole thing–more here when I do).

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