public domain

  • January 19, 2012
    BookTalk
    Creation without Restraint
    Promoting Liberty and Rivalry in Innovation
    By: 
    Christina Bohannan and Herbert Hovenkamp

    By Christina Bohannan and Herbert Hovenkamp, law professors at The University of Iowa College of Law


    Promoting rivalry in innovation requires a fusion of legal policies drawn from patent, copyright, and antitrust law, as well as economics and other disciplines. Creation without Restraint looks first at the relationship between markets and innovation, noting that innovation occurs most in moderately competitive markets and that small actors are more likely to be truly creative innovators. Then we examine the problem of connected and complementary relationships, a dominant feature of high technology markets. Interconnection requirements, technological compatibility requirements, standard setting, and the relationship between durable products and aftermarket parts and supplies all involve interconnection, or “tying.” But views about the practice tend toward two extremes. Some see tying as inherently anticompetitive, while others view it as unexceptionally benign. In fact, bundling products or technologies is essential in high technology markets and most of it is socially beneficial, but some possibilities of abuse nevertheless remain. 

    Identifying good substantive legal rules for facilitating innovation is often very difficult. Two generations ago antitrust law addressed problems of complexity by shifting the focus to harm. The courts reasoned that they could often avoid unmanageable substantive doctrine by considering whether the plaintiff had suffered the appropriate kind of injury. Plaintiffs who are injured by more rather than less competition should be denied a remedy. In the case of patent and copyright law, the appropriate question is whether an infringer’s conduct served to undermine the right holder’s incentive to innovate, with incentives measured from before the innovation occurred. Some IP infringements do no harm to the incentive to innovate; others actually make the right more rather than less valuable. In these situations relief should be denied without inquiry into the merits of the infringement case.

    Patent and copyright law are both in crisis today – major problems include overissuance, overly broad and ambiguously defined protections, and rules that permit both patentees and copyright holders to make broad claims on unforeseen innovations that lie in the future. The result has been that many patents are valueless, while others have very considerable value precisely because they enclose ideas or technologies that rightfully belong in the public domain. Patent law could be greatly improved if inventions were tied to real, nonobvious technology actually in the patentee’s possession at the time its application was filed, and if patentees were obliged to give comprehensible and timely notice of their inventions. Copyright law would be greatly improved by an aggressive theory of harm that reduces the scope of the derivative works right and increases the scope of fair use. In Eldred the Supreme Court suggested that the First Amendment should not be an important copyright infringement defense because the Constitution’s IP clause and the initial copyright act were passed “close in time,” leading to an inference that Congress must have considered these concerns. But the original copyright act bears little resemblance to the expansive coverage granted by the current Act, passed almost two centuries later.

  • January 19, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Christine Haight Farley, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law


    The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Golan v. Holder yesterday. The case could have been the antidote to its 2003 decision in Eldred v. Ashcroft. It could have vindicated the defenders of the public domain. It could have breathed life into the Copyright Clause in the Constitution. But it didn’t. Instead it hewed so closely to the Eldred decision that it will take wily law professors countless hours of postmortem to remind themselves of why they had any optimism in the first place.

    Like Eldred, Golan involved an act of Congress that reduced the public domain. In Eldred, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the Copyright Term Extension Act, which added 20 years to the term of copyrights.  In Golan, the court rejected a similar challenge to § 514 of the Copyright Act, which restored the copyrights of foreign works that had been in the public domain in this country apparently in order to implement our obligations under the WTO TRIPS Agreement. As a result, tens of thousands of works can no longer be freely used.  Since many of these works are quite old—some created as early as the 1920s — authors’ permission to use them may be impossible to obtain because simply locating the author may be impossible. In any event, Mr. Golan will no longer be able to afford Stravinsky’s symphonies as he conducts the University of Denver’s orchestra.

    The first eleven pages of the opinion are devoted to an explanation of our international obligations under copyright treaties. Got it: bad policy or not, we had no choice. Obviously, the opinion was not authored by Justice Scalia.