Copyright Infringement, 'Free-Riding' and the Lifeworld

in COPYRIGHT AND PIRACY: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CRITIQUE, Lionel Bently, Jennifer Davis and Jane Ginsburg, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010

LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 17/2008

29 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2008 Last revised: 15 Aug 2011

Anne Barron

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - Department of Law

Date Written: December 8, 2009


The dominant explanatory/justificatory framework informing scholarly commentary on copyright law, policy and theory today - certainly in the US - is law and economics. From this perspective, copyright law exists to underpin markets in certain categories of 'information good' (copyright works). These markets in turn function to ensure that the private costs and benefits of information production and consumption line up (more or less) with the social costs and benefits of these activities, ie that 'free-riding' on the efforts of information producers is (more or less) curtailed. A widely held view is that this tradition of what might be called 'copyright-law-and-economics' is now deeply divided - between adherents to what Glynn Lunney has called 'copyright's incentives-access paradigm' on the one hand, and proponents of what Mark Lemley has called the 'full value' or 'absolute protection' paradigm on the other. Absolute protection theorists tend towards the view that all uses of copyright works should be capable of being controlled (and so priced) by the right-owner; incentives-access theorists distinguish between uses the control of which would affect the information producer's incentives ex ante, and those that would not, and recommend that copyright protection should extend to the former category only. This paper examines the features that are said to distinguish the two paradigms from each other, focusing especially on the approach each recommends to copyright's scope (ie the issue of what uses of copyright works properly constitute copyright infringements). Particular attention is paid to the efforts of critical economists of intellectual property law such as Lemley and Brett Frischmann to retrieve and advance versions of the incentives-access paradigm with a view to counteracting the disadvantages for society they believe are associated with the absolute protection paradigm. Ultimately, however, I conclude that too much has been made of the distinction, and that the debate over which paradigm should have priority in determining the contours of copyright policy distracts attention from a more fundamental issue - the hegemony of economic analysis generally in organising the conceptual and normative universe of legal scholars working in this area. Thus while sympathetic to the impulse underlying the efforts of Lemley and Frischmann - a concern to resist the seemingly relentless expansion of copyright towards the horizon of absolute right-holder control of all uses of copyright material - I argue that their lingering adherence to the presuppositions of economic analysis has stymied their well-meaning efforts to account for the social value of 'information' in terms distinct from the merely economic measure of price. My overall aim here is to suggest that, because of its presuppositions, economic analysis - in whatever paradigm it may be packaged - offers at best a blinkered perspective on both copyright law and the field of social life that copyright law affects. I conclude by proposing Jürgen Habermas's social theory as an alternative framework in relation to which critics of copyright expansionism might fruitfully orient themselves in the future.

Keywords: copyright, economic analysis of law, culture, communication, Habermas

JEL Classification: K00, K11

Suggested Citation

Barron, Anne, Copyright Infringement, 'Free-Riding' and the Lifeworld (December 8, 2009). in COPYRIGHT AND PIRACY: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CRITIQUE, Lionel Bently, Jennifer Davis and Jane Ginsburg, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 17/2008. Available at SSRN:

Anne Barron (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - Department of Law ( email )

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