What We Don't See When We See Copyright as Property

Cambridge Law Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Forthcoming, November 2018)

U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 18-014

U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 602

30 Pages Posted: 25 May 2018 Last revised: 24 Jul 2018

See all articles by Jessica Litman

Jessica Litman

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: May 22, 2018


It is becoming increasingly clear that the supposed copyright wars that copyright scholars believed we were fighting – nominally pitting the interests of authors and creators against the interests of readers and other members of the audience – were never really about that at all. Instead the real conflict has been between the publishers, record labels, movie studios, and other intermediaries who rose to market dominance in the 20th century, and the digital services and platforms that have become increasingly powerful copyright players in the 21st. In this essay, adapted from the 13th annual University of Cambridge Center for Intellectual Property and Information Law International Intellectual Property Lecture, I argue that it would make good sense for at least some of us to leave the fight between 20th century publishers and 21st century platforms to the many lawyers that represent both sides, and to focus on some of the issues that aren’t as likely to attract their attention. While copyright scholars have been writing about whether authors' interests or readers' interests should be paramount, we’ve missed the opportunity to look more closely at the issues that the copyright wars obscured. Here is one: For all of the rhetoric about the central place of authors in the copyright scheme, our copyright laws in fact give them little power and less money. Intermediaries own the copyrights, and are able to structure licenses so as to maximize their own revenue while shrinking their payouts to authors. Copyright scholars have tended to treat this point superficially, because – as lawyers – we take for granted that copyrights are property; property rights are freely alienable; and the grantee of a property right stands in the shoes of the original holder. I compare the 1710 Statute of Anne, which created statutory copyrights and consolidated them in the hands of publishers and printers, with the 1887 Dawes Act, which served a crucial function in the American divestment of Indian land. I draw from the stories of the two laws the same moral: Constituting something as a freely alienable property right will almost always lead to results mirroring or exacerbating disparities in wealth and bargaining power. The legal dogma surrounding property rights makes it easy for us not to notice.

Keywords: copyright, property, authors

Suggested Citation

Litman, Jessica, What We Don't See When We See Copyright as Property (May 22, 2018). Cambridge Law Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Forthcoming, November 2018), U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 18-014, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 602, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3183265 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3183265

Jessica Litman (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.umich.edu/~jdlitman

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