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Posted on Techdirt - 11 March 2019 @ 11:59am

More Copyright Policy Should Be As Boring As This Supreme Court Decision

from the make-copyright-boring-again dept

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously last Monday in Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com, a copyright case that hinged on whether the "registration" of a work—which, by statute, must precede most kinds of infringement lawsuits—happens when the author sends in their application, or whether it happens when the Copyright Office makes a determination and sends back a certificate. There was a circuit split on the issue, in which some courts had gone with the "application approach," and others had gone with the "registration approach," and legal experts were divided on the question.

As of last Monday it is resolved. The Supreme Court went with the "registration approach" and said that unless you're subject to one of the handful of statutory carve-outs you must wait until the Copyright Office does its thing before you can sue.

The Supreme Court decided correctly, for what it's worth -- as Mike wrote about earlier. But, as even a dedicated copyright nerd like your humble author must admit, it's a pretty boring question. Copyright law is a field where small changes can have profound effects on people's lives, where de facto speech policies can be shaped, and where new technologies and media can be formally blessed or condemned to utter oblivion. But it's also a field of industrial regulation, cobbled together in large part by technocrats with domain expertise figuring out what works for all the parties in the room. To its credit, Fourth Estate is a case that limits its impact largely to that latter area.

But the fact that one body of law must do both things is the source of a lot of headache and heartache. Writing effective policy is hard, even when you're not trying to write a single rule that governs both billion dollar studio contracts and comments on a blog. The consequences can be extreme, as Cory Doctorow once explained: "A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: copyright policy ceased to exist. Because every copyright policy that we make has a seismic effect on the Internet, and because you can’t regulate copying without regulating the Internet." And of course, "as we make the transition from a world where everything we do includes an online component to a world where everything we do requires an online component, it’s becoming the case that there’s no such thing as 'Internet policy' – there’s just policy."

But it's neither inevitable nor accidental that copyright touches every part of our lives. It's helpful to really break it down here: copyright is an enumerated bundle of restrictions that apply to things called "works."

Doctorow's argument is about the first half of that expression. He elaborated in another column: because everything we do with computers (and especially networked computers) involves observable acts of making copies, copyright touches nearly every use of a work. Uses that once went unregulated are now swept up in the bundle of rights because they involve a copy. There are big commercial examples of this, like how video rental used to be an act of moving a cartridge or a disc from place to place and now it's a licensed act of making copies. But there are also a million little examples of this we encounter every day, from checking out books at the library to sharing a funny picture with friends to listening to our favorite music.

So that's how the first half of the expression went awry; what was once a limited set of exclusive rights is now a mechanism to regulate all sorts of uses of things called "works." That would be bad enough. But the real problem lies in the second half, in terms of what gets called a "work."

That too used to be an enumerated list. The first U.S. copyright law covered maps, charts, and books. Over the years more and more categories were added, but the real shift was more fundamental. It happened, at least in the U.S., in 1976, when the overhauled law changed copyright from a system that was opt-in to one where participation was mandatory. Works were previously only subject to copyright restrictions if the author went through "formalities,"—namely, putting a copyright notice on the work and sending in a registration to the Copyright Office. The 1976 Act removed that hurdle. Overnight, that changed the character of copyright from a regulatory system that applied to a handful of professionals consciously participating in it, to one that controlled nearly every utterance and scribble that got fixed in a tangible medium.

That's the one-two punch. First, through law: applying copyright coverage to basically everything. Then, through technology: expanding the regulated uses to basically all of them.

It's a bad situation, and it's that part that motivates people like Doctorow to take pursue a life of activism. With few exceptions, most people passionate about copyright reform care most about the consequences of copyright as an everything policy, and less so about the nitty-gritty of copyright as industrial regulation.

Which is part of the reason why, to bring it back to Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com, the Supreme Court decision is both correct and (mostly) boring. Correct, in part, because actual litigation is something that does not and should not apply to most human beings interacting with copyrighted works, and so it's good for that to be conditioned on opt-in registration. Boring, in part, because it is (mostly) not about the side of copyright that affects blog comments, but instead the side that underpins billion dollar contracts.

Copyright policy has, for decades now, labored under the fiction that there’s no distinction between the boring parts and the scary parts of the law. It’s a good thing to remember there’s a difference.

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