Despite the “robust history” of treating copyright as property, “property talk” still makes some copyright skeptics nervous.
Most recently, calls for regressive copyright changes have tried to recast copyright protection as more like government regulation than property. In fact, in Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess, released last November by the Mercatus Center, law professor Tom Bell appears to argue that this in and of itself is among the necessary changes to copyright law. One of his “Five Reforms for Copyright Law” is to “Reconceive ‘IP’ [‘Intellectual Property’] as ‘Intellectual Privilege‘.” Forget about substance, the problem with copyright is semantics.
But too often, arguments against copyright as property are pushed through on shaky grounds. Recently, legal scholar Adam Mossoff responded to one common claim — one that states that “’traditional property rights in land’ is based in inductive, ground-up ‘common law court decisions,’ but that IP rights are top-down, artificial statutory entitlements.” A complete myth, says Mossoff. Traditional property rights in land were frequently throughout history created and extended through statute rather than common law courts.
I’d like to look at another common claim.
It’s just different
In Copyright Unbalanced, editor Jerry Brito begins his chapter by saying copyright is “a very different kind of property” than “traditional property.” In support of this claim, Brito points to the respective durations of each. As Brito explains, the “copyright clause allows Congress to establish copyrights for ‘limited times’ only. This means that unlike traditional property, copyrights must cease to belong to their owners at a certain point.” Brito is not alone in this argument; copyright skeptics have long made this argument. Lawrence Lessig, for example, perhaps the godfather of copyright skepticism, says in his 2006 book Code that the difference between copyright and what he calls “ordinary property” is recognized in the Constitution’s “limited times” language:
[N]ote the special temporality of this right: “for limited Times.” The Constitution does not allow Congress to grant authors and inventors permanent exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries, only limited rights… It does not give Congress the power to give them a perpetual “property” in their writings and discoveries, only an exclusive right over them for a limited time.
The Constitution’s protection for intellectual property then is fundamentally different from its protection of ordinary property.
But is it correct that copyright is fundamentally unlike “traditional” or “ordinary” property (whatever that is) because it has a cut-off date? Setting aside for now the fact that the Copyright Clause in the U.S. Constitution only applies to the United States — while every other country with copyright laws does limit its duration, I’m not aware that this limited duration is a constitutional requirement outside the U.S. Under Brito’s logic, it would apparently be easier to argue that copyright is property in, say, South Korea.
Or is it?
If we consider property as a relationship between person and thing, than it should be easy to see that all property rights are limited in time. Until scientists discover a cure for death, property is limited in time to the life of its owner. After you die, you don’t own anything anymore; that specific relationship between person and thing is terminated. Who owns your property after you die is settled by — and this is important — positive law.
Because, if we’re talking about common law or natural law, as those who often advance such arguments are especially fond of talking about, the transfer of ownership upon death is far different. Nowadays, in very general terms, when you die, your property is disposed in the following manner: first, according to your will; next, if you have no will, then to your heirs according to the relevant state law; finally, if you have no heirs, then your property escheats to the state.
This is how William Blackstone explained the law in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Said Blackstone:
The most universal and effectual way, of abandoning property, is by the death of the occupant; when, both the actual possession and intention of keeping possession ceasing, the property, which is founded upon such possession and intention, ought also to cease of course. For, naturally speaking, the instant a man ceases to be, he ceases to have any dominion: else, if he had a right to dispose of his acquisitions one moment beyond his life, he would also have a right to direct their disposal for a million of ages after him; which would be highly absurd and inconvenient. All property must therefore cease upon death, considering men as absolute individuals, and unconnected with civil society: for then, by the principles before established, the next immediate occupant would acquire a right in all that the deceased possessed.
The “permanence” of property developed later, through civil law; first, through the right of inheritance, and later through the right to dispose of property through testament. Blackstone is clear: heirs had no natural right to inherit their parents’ property, and property owners had no natural right to “direct the succession of his property after his own decease.” Under natural law, all property lasts for “limited times”, becoming common property (part of the public domain) upon the death of the possessor. It is only through “the positive law of society” that a stable system of inheritance is created.
Blackstone’s Commentaries were hugely influential when they were published, referred to heavily by the drafters of the U.S. Constitution. While the bulk of public mentions of copyright during that time referred to it as property or literary property, I’m not aware of any explicit discussion of the “limited times” language in the Constitution and how it relates to copyright as property from the drafters.
However, there are roughly contemporary accounts of copyright that do recognize that its “limited times” do not take it outside the scope of “property.” In 1831, Congressman Gulian Verplanck delivered an address on literary property following the passing of the Copyright Act of 1831 — the first major general revision to U.S. copyright law. Verplanck argued that copyright was equivalent to other forms of property, how the “right of property in the productions of intellectual labour was as much founded in natural justice as the right of property in the productions of corporeal labour.” Said Verplanck:
Such too was the doctrine of the framers of our own constitution, as I maintained was quite evident from the peculiarity of their language on this point. They had not used any word, which would imply that they thought “to give rights to authors and inventors” but had authorized congress “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing to authors or inventors the exclusive rights to their writings or inventions.” They clearly did not think they were enabling congress to give these rights, but presuming them to exist, they provided for protecting them by a legal remedy. The limitation of the term of legal exclusive enjoyment and protection was indeed the effect of positive law. But this limitation was precisely of the same nature with the terms of prescription of property and limitation of actions in all legal systems, which may be longer or shorter according to views of public policy, the natural and moral rights of property remaining unchanged [Emphasis added].
Far from representing a fundamental break from “normal” property, the U.S. Constitution’s “limited times” language for copyrights remains consonant with how property has been conceived over centuries.