By , June 01, 2016.

Everybody says we should strive for balance in copyright law. Indeed, who is against balance in principle? The real question is what exactly you mean—what is being balanced?

Copyright skeptics have a consistent answer to this. When Carla Hayden was nominated to be Librarian of Congress earlier this year, American Library Association Managing Director of Government Affairs Adam Eisgrau urged Hayden to talk about the “importance of a real balance in copyright law, one that really puts limitations and exceptions on equal footing with rights.”

Similarly, in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, Public Knowledge framed the concept of balance in copyright law as one between an author’s right on the one hand and “numerous limitations on the scope of that monopoly right that guarantee to the public certain rights to use, access, and enjoy those created works.”

EFF’s Corynne McSherry has previously written that it is the role of fair use to make sure that “copyrights serve rather than impede the public interest.”

Thanks to copyright rules governing the right to copy, distribute and perform, the folks who held copyrights in the works at issue in the above cases has (and have) a chance to seek compensation. And thanks to copyright rules protecting fair uses, other creative people, their users and the public had (and have) an opportunity to engage with those works in new and unexpected ways. That’s the copyright balance at work.

I contend that this conception of balance, setting authors’ rights on one scale and limitations and exceptions on the other, is both one-dimensional and detrimental to the overall goals of copyright. The underlying assumption is that authors’ interests are distinct from the public’s interests, and that one can only be furthered at the expense of the other. But this isn’t the case.

It seems more accurate to describe authors’ interests and the public’s interests as interrelated and mutually reinforcing. After all, at a very basic sense, the performer and the audience need each other; likewise with the author and the reader. The idea behind copyright is that a marketable right in the tangible expression an author produces is the best way to advance the interests of both. The eighteenth century economist Adam Smith is noted for articulating this logic—that “rational self-interest in a free-market economy leads to economic well-being.” As he says in Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Copyright gives authors a means to pursue their self-interest, and the public benefits as a result of this pursuit.

Although there is a lot of speculation about what motivated the Constitution’s drafters to include copyright authority at the Federal level, the most direct evidence of that motivation points toward an embrace of Smith’s ideas. In The Federalist Papers 43, James Madison, the chief proponent of the Constitution’s Copyright Clause, wrote that “The utility of this power will scarcely be questioned.” Echoing Smith directly, he said, “The public good fully coincides…with the claims of individuals.”

The US Supreme Court has recognized this principle on several occasions. In Mazer v. Stein, it said, “The economic philosophy behind the clause empowering Congress to grant patents and copyrights is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance public welfare through the talents of authors and inventors in ‘Science and useful Arts.'”1347 U.S. 201 (1954).

Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante captured the above discussion perfectly in her 2013 article on The Next Great Copyright Act. There, she says, “The issues of authors are intertwined with the interests of the public. As the first beneficiaries of the copyright law, authors are not a counterweight to the public interest but are instead at the very center of the equation.”

Maintaining Balance in Copyright Law

Once we recognize the intertwined nature of author rights and the public interest, we can examine several ways in which balance between the two is maintained.

First, establishing marketable property rights balances between two of the primary goals of copyright: rewarding the intellectual labor of authors and encouraging the dissemination of expressive works to the public. Generally speaking, authors and distributors want to reach as wide an audience as possible, so they will offer their works on terms and prices that achieve this. The ability to recoup investment in the production and distribution of such works facilitates stable and sustainable markets. And as many have pointed out, though any given individual work is unique, copyright does not have monopolistic properties since there exist many close substitutes, eliminating the ability of copyright owners to extract supracompetitive prices.2See, for example, Tom Sydnor, Can Economic and Historical Analyses End Copyright Law’s Property/Monopoly Disputes?, American Enterprise Institute (2015); Stan Liebowitz, Is the Copyright Monopoly a Best-Selling Fiction? (2008).

Second, a number of internal copyright doctrines balance between ensuring that authors can recoup the value of their work while also preserving the ability for follow-on and downstream creators (and the public) to build on existing works through inspiration, homage, criticism and commentary. The Supreme Court said in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises,

The challenge of copyright is to strike the “difficult balance between the interests of authors and inventors in the control and exploitation of their writings and discoveries on the one hand, and society’s competing interest in the free flow of ideas, information, and commerce on the other hand.”

The “originality” requirement now embodied in § 102 of the Copyright Act is crucial to maintenance of the appropriate balance between these competing interests. Properly interpreted in the light of the legislative history, this section extends copyright protection to an author’s literary form but permits free use by others of the ideas and information the author communicates.

Originality goes toward copyrightability of a work, and it is an admittedly low threshold, requiring only “independent creation plus a modicum of creativity.”3Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 US 340,346 (1991). As the House Report for the 1976 Copyright Act explains, the standard for originality, “does not include requirements of novelty, ingenuity, or esthetic merit.” The distinction between ideas and expression that is discussed later does more work in an infringement analysis, particularly when there has been nonliteral copying or copying of less than an entire work. The distinction between ideas and expression should over time naturally result in an equilibrium between protecting legitimate interests in expressive works while permitting the necessary borrowing from existing works that new works rely upon. Although some individuals may idiosyncratically demand more protection than they deserve, in the aggregate, claims between owners of existing works and creators of new works will balance out. This is especially true when you consider the existence of firms with larger copyright portfolios—they will invariably find themselves on both sides of the “v.” in infringement suits, and so it is in their best interests not to be overly aggressive when arguing what can be protected or what can’t be protected under copyright law.

Third, much of the work balancing between copyright and free speech interests is achieved through the exclusive rights. The Supreme Court has identified two “built-in First Amendment accommodations” to copyright law.4Eldred v Ashcroft, 537 US 186 (2003). One of these is fair use, an exception to exclusive rights, but the other is the idea-expression dichotomy, which acts to define the scope of the exclusive rights themselves. But along with these safeguards, the Court has also recognized that copyright itself promotes free expression. In Harper & Row, the Court called copyright “the engine of free expression” and explained, “By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.” Without these marketable rights, the creation and dissemination of certain types of works would be chilled.

A prime example involves journalism. In looking at whether news clipping service Meltwater’s unauthorized copying of news material from the Associated Press was a fair use, the Southern District Court of New York said the public interest weighed against Meltwater:

Paraphrasing James Madison, the world is indebted to the press for triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression. Investigating and writing about newsworthy events occurring around the globe is an expensive undertaking and enforcement of the copyright laws permits AP to earn the revenue that underwrites that work. Permitting Meltwater to take the fruit of AP’s labor for its own profit, without compensating AP, injures AP’s ability to perform this essential function of democracy.5Associated Press v. Meltwater, 931 F.Supp.2d 537, 552 (SDNY 2013).

Finally, we do indeed have explicit limitations and exceptions on authors’ rights, such as fair use or fair dealing. These exceptions are absolutely necessary and important, but they do most of the work outside the core of copyright protection.

A view of balance that pits authors rights against the public interest thus ignores the law’s internal balancing mechanisms and is ultimately detrimental to the goals of copyright. By keeping in mind the intertwined nature of the private right and the public gain, we can better reach a balanced approach. Such balance would ensure that rights are clear, marketable, and enforceable. It would, for example, disfavor government intervention in the form of compulsory licensing, rate setting, etc., except when there is demonstrable market failure; it would encourage cooperation between rightsholders and OSPs and others in the online ecosystem to minimize online infringement; it would provide access to meaningful remedies for individuals and small businesses. A balanced copyright system would, in short, create a vibrant, diverse culture that enriches the public sphere by protecting creators’ right to seek their fair share.


1 347 U.S. 201 (1954).
2 See, for example, Tom Sydnor, Can Economic and Historical Analyses End Copyright Law’s Property/Monopoly Disputes?, American Enterprise Institute (2015); Stan Liebowitz, Is the Copyright Monopoly a Best-Selling Fiction? (2008).
3 Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 US 340,346 (1991). As the House Report for the 1976 Copyright Act explains, the standard for originality, “does not include requirements of novelty, ingenuity, or esthetic merit.”
4 Eldred v Ashcroft, 537 US 186 (2003).
5 Associated Press v. Meltwater, 931 F.Supp.2d 537, 552 (SDNY 2013).