Copyright Infringement and the Separated Powers of Moral Entrepreneurship

43 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2013 Last revised: 30 Apr 2014

See all articles by Joseph Fishman

Joseph Fishman

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: September 9, 2013


This Article examines the copyright industries’ “moral entrepreneurs,” sociologist Howard Becker’s term for enterprising crusaders who seek to change existing social norms regarding particular conduct. Becker’s conception of moral entrepreneurship consists of two groups performing separate tasks: rule creators work to translate their preferred norms into legal prohibitions, and then a separate class of enforcers administer those prohibitions. In a limited sense, U.S. copyright law hews to this scheme. Legislation such as the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997 and the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention Act of 2005 has assigned the federal government an increasing role in defining intellectual-property deviance. At the same time, however, the Copyright Act’s civil enforcement scheme elides this separation of powers by allowing the rule creators to serve as their own enforcers. Between its criminal and civil remedial schemes, the Copyright Act allows two different paradigms of moral entrepreneurship to operate in parallel: one assigns enforcement to the state while the other entrusts it to the original rule creators. As a result, both rule creators and prosecutors can use infringement litigation to try to map copyright’s moral boundaries.

A side-by-side comparison of these two enforcement paradigms indicates that the Department of Justice has proven more effective at instilling a norm against copyright infringement than the rightsholders whose interests it represents. By selectively focusing on unsympathetic defendants, prosecutors are defining deviance while avoiding the backlash that has greeted civil plaintiffs. This story offers a lesson, corroborated by other historical examples, concerning what I call the separated powers of moral entrepreneurship. Because professional enforcers tend to lack the moral fervor of the rule creators, they may decline to enforce the rule in situations where the rule creator, if given the opportunity, would forge ahead. This quality makes professional enforcers better equipped to avoid backlash when particular enforcement activities are out of step with widely held social norms. A rule creator who enforces her own rule risks cannibalizing the favorable norms upon which she had intended to build. As a result, where social norms are in flux, the agency cost of delegating enforcement to others is often a benefit.

Keywords: Moral entrepreneurship, social norms, copyright, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Fishman, Joseph, Copyright Infringement and the Separated Powers of Moral Entrepreneurship (September 9, 2013). American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 51, p. 359, 2014, Available at SSRN:

Joseph Fishman (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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