On May 19, the Supreme Court decided Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-MayerDevlin Hartline recently discussed the decision here, and I have previously noted one particular passage relating to the application/registration debate.

But there is another passage in Petrella that has sparked some interest. It appears as Justice Ginsburg is countering arguments against its holding. She says,

MGM insists that the laches defense must be available to prevent a copyright owner from sitting still, doing nothing, waiting to see what the outcome of an alleged infringer’s investment will be. It is hardly incumbent on copyright owners, however, to challenge each and every actionable infringement. And there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether an infringer’s exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect on that work, or even complements it. Fan sites prompted by a book or film, for example, may benefit the copyright owner. Even if an infringement is harmful, the harm may be too small to justify the cost of litigation.

If the rule were, as MGM urges, “sue soon, or forever hold your peace,” copyright owners would have to mount a federal case fast to stop seemingly innocuous infringements, lest those infringements eventually grow in magnitude. Section 507(b)’s limitations period, coupled to the separate-accrual rule, allows a copyright owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the candle.

Several among the copyright skeptic crowd were overjoyed when they read this. Kevin Smith, who serves as Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, wrote:

I don’t know that the Court has every [sic] before acknowledge [sic] that infringements might be beneficial to rights holders. Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of the myriad potential for reuse and remix. Certainly the authors of fan fiction should feel buoyed by the remark. From a more technical perspective, it seems to me to further undermine what was once a strongly held belief that whenever infringement was found, harm could be presumed. It seems clear that the Court is now reinserting harm as a separate element in the plaintiff burden of proving the tort of copyright infringement.

The CCIA’s Matt Schruers wrote:

A more interesting wrinkle is Justice Ginsburg’s explicit embrace of a point that I had previously characterized as “taboo” — that not all infringements impose costs on the rights holder. In fact, when I wrote last year that some infringements have no economic cost, and that other infringements will reallocate wealth instead of destroy it, the site admins had to install a profanity filter for the comment section. Yet today, Justice Ginsburg goes a step further and states that some infringement “may benefit the copyright owner.”

I hate to rain on their parade.

This statement is actually one that should buoy authors and creators. It is perhaps one of the more robust endorsements by the Supreme Court of the conception of copyright as a property right—an endorsement that goes beyond mere semantics, such as when Justice Breyer said “deliberate unlawful copying is no less an unlawful taking of property than garden-variety theft”, or, when the Court was confronted with evidence that deliberately placed mistakes had been copied, that “such indicia is held to indicate a substantial theft of copyright property.”

For it endorses copyright as a right that “trumps utility.” Ginsburg plainly states that uses which undercut a work’s value, have no effect on it, or even complement it are all actionable infringements. This perfectly comports with other forms of property. If you break into my home, that’s trespass. If you break into my home to wash my dishes, that’s still trespass, even if your act may ultimately benefit me.

Though Ginsburg never explicitly references the notion of property here, the thrust of her remarks are made clearer by her reference to the availability of injunctive relief to a copyright owner not once, but twice in this brief section. The injunction, of course, is the quintessential remedy for property rules.

What’s more, Ginsburg implies that tolerating such non-harmful uses does not operate to the prejudice of a copyright holder. Copyright litigants should make note of this when faced with an implied license or fair use defense. (And Smith’s conclusion that “the Court is now reinserting harm as a separate element in the plaintiff burden of proving the tort of copyright infringement” misreads the passage entirely.)

Why do property rights confer such high standing in our society? That’s a question that can’t be answered in a mere blog post. But perhaps I can offer some general remarks. Assuming private property rights are justly allocated, their recognition protects the dignity and autonomy of individuals. Individuals have an array of equally valid choices about how to exploit their property that others cannot encroach upon. Ignoring respect of that choice invites trouble of all sorts—the harm from infringement of property rights is not necessarily what, if any, damage may be done to the res, but the invasion into the property owner’s sovereignty itself.

This trouble, in my opinion, is aggravated when we start talking about one’s expression. It’s one thing for society to dictate what you should do with land you bought and quite another to dictate what you should do with a book you wrote, or a photo you took, or a song you recorded—none of which, by the way, existed before you created it. These are not only your property but your expression, extensions of your personality. We should be cautious against societal encroachments to something so core to our being. That does not make such rights absolute in all directions; like all forms of property, they must be properly scoped and coexist with doctrines that mediate conflicts with other rights. And, in some cases, must give way to compelling public interests.

But bottom line, it is heartening to see the Supreme Court calmly and without ceremony advance the well-founded conception of copyright as property.

Thanks to Devlin Hartline for feedback during drafting!

2 Comments

  1. For it endorses copyright as a right that “trumps utility.” Ginsburg plainly states that uses which undercut a work’s value, have no effect on it, or even complement it are all actionable infringements. This perfectly comports with other forms of property. If you break into my home, that’s trespass. If you break into my home to wash my dishes, that’s still trespass, even if your act may ultimately benefit me.

    Yes! Those that were celebrating the Court’s “admission” that infringement might be beneficial to the copyright owner in some way made me chuckle. Of course that’s true. It’s obvious, and I don’t think anyone’s really denying it. But as you point out, that’s true with all property. Trespassers might improve the property they trespass upon, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still trespassing. The property owner has the exclusive right to determine the uses of his property just the same, and any benefit to that owner goes to the issue of damages, not liability–at least to the degree that damages are compensatory (damages can be punitive as well). It works the same for copyright as it does for any other property. All the Court is confirming in that passage is that copyright works like other property.

    Thanks to Devlin Hartline for feedback during drafting!

    Well, now I wish I’d said something more intelligent to you. 😉

  2. “If you break into my home, that’s trespass. If you break into my home to wash my dishes, that’s still trespass, even if your act may ultimately benefit me.”

    That’s a warrant for shutting down deviantArt.