The Emperor Has No Copyright: Registration, Cultural Hierarchy and the Myth of American Copyright Militancy

61 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2010 Last revised: 5 May 2015

See all articles by John Tehranian

John Tehranian

Southwestern Law School; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: 2009


This Article subverts the myth of American copyright militancy by providing a more nuanced view of our enforcement regime. As it turns out, the Emperor has been sold a suit of copyright that leaves a surprising number of authors naked - without sufficiently meaningful remedies for infringements of their creative output. Copyrighted works are effectively placed into a hierarchy of protection that, in many ways, safeguards creators less vigorously than regimes in other countries.

Unlike any of its intellectual property allies, the United States demands timely registration of a copyright in order for rights holders to qualify for the recovery of statutory damages and attorneys' fees. Through the use of this ostensibly neutral formality, the current system privileges the interests of repeat, sophisticated rights holders, often at the expense of smaller creators. Moreover, existing law practically encourages certain kinds of infringement. In the end, sophisticated players enjoy powerful remedies when enforcing their copyrights. They dangle the legal Sword of Damocles - draconian statutory damages - over the heads of accused infringers, threatening to hand defendants their heads on a platter with more fervor than Salomé’s dance (to licensed music, of course). By sharp contrast, when they function as users of intellectual property (something all creators do), these same players often face only the most paltry of penalties for unauthorized exploitation - even when they infringe willfully.

By drawing on a wide range of examples - from Hollywood screenplays to the formative blues riffs upon which rock music is built, paparazzi shots of Britney Spears to the iconic portrait of Che Guevara qua revolutionary, and congressional testimony from Scott Turow to publisher battles against university copy shops - this Article deconstructs the beneficiaries of the existing, registration-driven regime. Yet the point of analysis is not to call for even greater copyright protection for all creators. Rather, the Article highlights the need for holistic reform that equalizes protection among different classes of authors and rights holders while also balancing the interests of copyright users.

Keywords: Copyright, Registration Requirement, Infringement, Cultural Hierarchy, Sacred Texts

JEL Classification: O34, K41

Suggested Citation

Tehranian, John, The Emperor Has No Copyright: Registration, Cultural Hierarchy and the Myth of American Copyright Militancy (2009). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 1397-1457, 2009, Available at SSRN:

John Tehranian (Contact Author)

Southwestern Law School ( email )

3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
United States

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics