God in the Machine: A New Structural Analysis of Copyright's Fair Use Doctrine

45 Pages Posted: 2 May 2005

See all articles by Matthew Sag

Matthew Sag

Emory University School of Law


This article is a broad reconceptualization of the role of fair use within copyright law. Fair use is commonly thought of as just one of many exceptions limiting copyright, in contrast, this article shows that fair use has actually enabled the expansion of copyright protection.

Fair use has an important structural role that is often overlooked. First, copyright necessarily must balance intellectual property incentives with the protection of free speech and innovation; fair use constitutes that balancing mechanism. By establishing the outer limits of copyright, fair use in fact enables an expansive interpretation of author's rights within those bounds. Second, because copyright works best by providing flexible principles that can accommodate technological changes, fair use also constitutes the mechanism by which Congress has given the courts a large policy-making role to ensure copyright's balance.

This article explains this structural function of fair use, then shows how this theory should and does apply. In doing so, it also identifies two broad trends emerging in the case law that have previously not been recognized or articulated, despite their significance. These are the principles of consumer autonomy and medium neutrality.

Keywords: Intellectual Property, Copyright, Fair Use, Public Choice, Consumer Autonomy, Medium Neutrality, Reverse Engineering

JEL Classification: K00, K11, K10, K12, K13

Suggested Citation

Sag, Matthew, God in the Machine: A New Structural Analysis of Copyright's Fair Use Doctrine. Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 05-10, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=713802

Matthew Sag (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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