Mises Wire

Home | Wire | We are all copyright criminals: John Tehranian's "Infringement Nation"

We are all copyright criminals: John Tehranian's "Infringement Nation"

In his paper Infringement Nation: Copyright Reform and the Law/Norm Gap, law professor John Tehranian explains how the normal activities (see pp. 543-48) of a typical Internet user–he takes an “average American, …take an ordinary day in the life of a hypothetical law professor named John”–someone who does not even engage in P2P file sharing–could result in up to $4.5 billion in potential liability annually, for copyright infringement. The acts include:

  • having his email program “automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s copyrighted text—their email—represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding….” (twenty emails in an hour: $3 million in statutory damages);
  • distributing in his Constitutional Law class copies of three just-published Internet articles presenting analyses of a Supreme Court decision handed down only hours ago;
  • absentmindedly doodling a sketch of the Guggenheim museum on a notepad during a boring faculty meeting, i.e. making an unauthorized derivative work;
  • reading a 1931 e.e. cumming poem to his Law and Literature class, an unauthorized public performance;
  • emailing to his family five pictures his friend took of a local football game–his friend owns the copyright;
  • having a Captain Caveman tattoo and revealing it while swimming at the local university pool: violating Hanna-Barbera’s copyright by the reproduction and public display;
  • singing Happy Birthday to a friend at a restaurant and recording it on his smartphone videocamera, an unauthorized public performance and reproduction of a copyright-protected work–as is the painting on the wall of the restaurant that is captured in the video footage; and
  • reading on his email a magazine that itself has clips of interesting items from other publications, a contributory infringement leading to up to $7.5 million of liability.

As Tehranian concludes:

By the end of the day, John has infringed the copyrights of twenty emails, three legal articles, an architectural rendering, a poem, five photographs, an animated character, a musical composition, a painting, and fifty notes and drawings. All told, he has committed at least eighty-three acts of infringement and faces liability in the amount of $12.45 million (to say nothing of potential criminal charges). There is nothing particularly extraordinary about John’s activities. Yet if copyright holders were inclined to enforce their rights to the maximum extent allowed by law, barring last minute salvation from the notoriously ambiguous fair use defense, he would be liable for a mind-boggling $4.544 billion in potential damages each year. And, surprisingly, he has not even committed a single act of infringement through P2P file-sharing. Such an outcome flies in the face of our basic sense of justice. Indeed, one must either irrationally conclude that John is a criminal infringer—a veritable grand larcenist—or blithely surmise that copyright law must not mean what it appears to say. Something is clearly amiss. Moreover, the troublesome gap between copyright law and norms has grown only wider in recent years.

And this is just civil, monetary damages; Tehranian did not even include potential criminal liability (but here he cites 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2), 506; 18 U.S.C. § 2319, “providing for criminal penalties against certain copyright infringers.”



Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.

Shield icon wire