Honest Copying Practices

29 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2018 Last revised: 11 Mar 2018

See all articles by Joseph Fishman

Joseph Fishman

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: November 1, 2017


One of intellectual property theory’s operating assumptions is that creating is hard while copying is easy. But it is not always so. Copies, though outwardly identical, can come from different processes, from cheap digital duplication to laborious handmade re-creation. Policymakers around the world face a choice whether such distinctions should affect liability. The two branches of intellectual property that condition liability on actual copying, copyright and trade secrecy, give different answers. Both in the United States and elsewhere, trade secrecy regimes distinguish between copying methods deemed illegitimate and those deemed legitimate, what international treaties call “honest commercial practices.” Copyright regimes, by contrast, are largely indifferent. They focus on the end product, not the process of its production.

Trade secrecy and copyright are not often seen as a natural pair, but on the question of how copies are made, the former has much to offer the latter. This Article examines how a defendant’s method of copying could function as a policy lever within international copyright law. Because differences in method can matter to copyright policy’s intended beneficiaries — owners, readers, and follow-on authors — it should also matter to copyright policy’s crafters. Yet before that goal can be implemented, there seems to be a stumbling block. International treaty commitments require member states to provide owners an exclusive reproduction right that covers copying performed in any manner. Nevertheless, that commitment has not stopped states from treating laborious copying differently than cheap copying in limited contexts, such as private uses. The problem is that the normative rationale underlying these limited exceptions remains understudied and therefore unsystematically implemented. A closer inspection reveals that the same flexibilities in international law that have allowed states to make these exceptions also allow them to consider the defendant’s method of copying as a structural element of the reproduction right itself. The resulting regime would look something like trade secrecy’s tolerance for honest commercial practices — what I dub here “honest copying practices.”

Keywords: Intellectual Property, Copyright, Trade Secret

JEL Classification: K00, O31, O34

Suggested Citation

Fishman, Joseph, Honest Copying Practices (November 1, 2017). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 1, 2017, Vanderbilt Law Research Paper, 18-21, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3105497

Joseph Fishman (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

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

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