The Ethical Visions of Copyright Law

34 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2009


This symposium essay explores the imagined ethics of copyright: the ethical stories that people tell to justify, make sense of, and challenge copyright law. Such ethical visions are everywhere in intellectual property discourse, and legal scholarship ought to pay more attention to them. The essay focuses on a deontic vision of reciprocity in the author-audience relationship, a set of linked claims that authors and audiences ought to respect each other and express this respect through voluntary transactions.

Versions of this default ethical vision animate groups as seemingly antagonistic as the music industry, file sharers, free software advocates, and Creative Commons. "Respect copyrights," "Don't sue your customers," "Software should be free," and "I love to share" are all ethical claims about copyright that share some common intuitions, even as they draw very different conclusions. The essay provides a framework for thinking about these ethical visions of intellectual property and then puts these various visions into conversation with each other.

Keywords: ethics, copyright, intellectual property

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James, The Ethical Visions of Copyright Law. Fordham Law Review, Vol. 77, No. 5, April 2009; NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/10 #11. Available at SSRN:

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

111 8th Avenue #302
New York, NY 10011
United States

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