Indirect Liability for Copyright Infringement: An Economic Perspective

16 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2003  

William M. Landes

University of Chicago Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Douglas Lichtman

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


When individuals infringe copyright, they often use tools, services, and venues provided by other parties. An enduring legal question asks to what extent those other parties should be held liable for the resulting infringement. For example, should a firm that produces photocopiers be required to compensate authors for any unauthorized copies made on that firm's machines? What about firms that manufacture personal computers or offer Internet access; should they be liable, at least in part, for online music piracy? Modern copyright law addresses these issues through a variety of common law doctrines and statutory provisions. In this essay, we introduce those rules and evaluate them from an economic perspective. In the process, we emphasize that every mechanism for rewarding authors inevitably introduces some form of inefficiency, and thus the only way to determine the proper scope for indirect liability is to weigh its costs and benefits against those associated with other plausible mechanisms for rewarding authors.

Keywords: copyright, indirect liability, third-party liability, Grokster, Napster, vicarious, contributory

Suggested Citation

Landes, William M. and Lichtman, Douglas, Indirect Liability for Copyright Infringement: An Economic Perspective. Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 2003; U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 179. Available at SSRN: or

William M. Landes

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
773-702-9606 (Phone)
773-702-0356 (Fax)

Douglas Gary Lichtman (Contact Author)

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
310-267-4617 (Phone)

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