On April 2d, I did a post on the counter-reformation against amendments to copyright laws in the public interest. It is, apparently, not enough for some copyright holders that their rights have ballooned to unprecedented size and strength: they also have to fight back any efforts to ameliorate the harsh consequences on the public from the expansion of those rights. One political argument advanced in the push-back against the public is what I call the Neo-Blackstone movement: copyright is property, and property represents “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” Blackstone’s ode here (in his Commentaries) to property was never descriptive, not even of then-contemporary English law; it was in fact merely a political wish. Professor Robert Gordon, in a study of the actual state of the law in Blackstone’s time, wrote:
What strikes the backward-looking observer
as curious is simply this: that in the midst of
such a lush flowering of absolute dominion talk
in theoretical and political discourse,
English legal doctrines should contain so
very few plausible instances of absolute
individual rights. Moreover, it is curious that
English and colonial social practices contained so
many property relations that seem to traduce the
ideal of absolute individual rights.
Robert Gordon, “Paradoxical Property,” reproduced in Early Modern Conceptions of Property 95, 97 (John Brewer and Susan Staves editors 2996, Rutledge).
And as much as Blackstone pushed the view of copyright as a natural property as a lawyer for the London publishers in the great “Battle of the Bookseller,” when he later became a judge, he did not adhere to the view of copyright as vesting its owner with the sole and despostic dominion he earlier advanced in his Commentaries. Wonderful evidence of this is provided in a report of the 1774 decision in Hawkesworth v. Newbery, which held that abridgments (we would call them condensations today), might not violate copyright owners’ rights:
The Lord Chancellor was of opinion that this abridgement of the work was not any violation of the author's property whereon to ground an injunction.
That to constitute a true and proper abridgement of a work the whole must be preserved in its sense: And then the act of abridgement is an act of understanding, employed in a carrying a large work into a smaller corpus, and rendering it less expensive, and more convenient both to the time and use of the reader. Which made an abridgement in the nature of a new and meritorious work.
That this had been done by Mr. Newbery, whose edition might be read in a fourth of the time, and all the substance preserved, and conveyed in language as good or better than the original, and in a more agreeable and useful manner. That [the Lord Chancellor] had consulted Mr. Justice Blackstone whose knowledge and skill in the profession was universally known, and who as an author had done honour to his country.
That they had spent some hours together, and were agreed that an abridgement, where the understanding is employed in retrenching unnecessary and uninteresting circumstances, which rather deaden the narration, is not an act of plagiarism upon the original work, nor against any property of the author in it, but an allowable and meritorious work. And that this abridgement of Mr. Newberry's falls within these reasons and descriptions.
Judgment for defendant abridger. Fair abridgments were permitted in the United States until passage of the 1909 Act. So much for the sole and despostic view. But one even sees expressions of the view that the natural state of affairs in copyright is sole and despotic dominion in how to interpret the Berne Convention's three-step test. Professor Sam Ricketson, the god of Berne Convention scholars and an all around great guy, wrote in a 2003 study of rights and limitations in the Berne Convention statements that limitations and exceptions will be allowed if “there is a public interest … that justifies overriding the private rights of authors in their works in … particular circumstances.” Sam Ricketson, WIPO Study on Limitations and Exceptions of Copyright Related Rights in the Digital Environment 4, Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights, Ninth Session, Geneva, June 23 to June 27, 2003, SCCR/9/7 (April 5, 2003).
I don’t accept the private -- public dichotomy advanced here: there is, after all, no such thing as copyright rights privately created and privately enforced. Copyright is created by governments for public reasons and is enforced by public laws and public judges. Copyright laws are created as an entire fabric consisting of certain entitlements given to copyright owners, and certain entitlements given to the public. There is no basis to regard any one entitlement as more privileged or important than another. That leads me to an exciting new declaration on the three-step test recently issued by three very prominent European scholars: Reto. M. Hilty, who is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property, Competition and Tax Law, Munich, and a Professor at the Universities of Zurich and Munich, Germany; Christophe Geiger, a Researcher, at Max Planck Institute and Associate Professor and Director, Centre for International Industrial Property Studies (CEIPI), University of Strasbourg, France; and Jonathan Griffiths, Senior Lecturer, School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London.
The declaration is available here, at the Max Planck website, and is entitled “A Balanced Interpretation of the ‘Three-Step Test’ in Copyright Law. The word balanced is accurate for all but the most partisan of combatants in the Copyright Wars. The declaration states, for example: “Copyright law aims to benefit the public interest. It produces important incentives for the creation and dissemination of new works of authorship to the general public. These works serve to satisfy common needs; either in their own right or as a basis for the creation of further works.” The declaration also does not interpret the three-step test as a free for all, noting: “The Three-Step Test has already established an effective means of preventing the excessive application of limitations and exceptions.” No bomb throwers in this group. The declaration adds, though: “The public interest is not well served if copyright law neglects the more general interests of individuals and groups in society when establishing incentives for rightholders.”
This balanced view is continued in how to interpret the three-step test. The dominant way of interpreting it – advanced by copyright owners and natural rights copyright lawyers – is as an obstacle course: national governments interested in amendments to serve the public interest have to surmount all three steps, and the burden is really heavy at each step. In place of this absurd approach, the declaration states in reaction to a finding that “in applying the Three-Step Test, national courts and legislatures have been wrongly influenced by restrictive interpretations of that Test”:
1. The Three-Step test constitutes an indivisible entirety. The three steps are to be considered together and as a whole in a comprehensive overall assessment.
2. The Three-Step Test does not require limitations and exceptions to be interpreted narrowly. They are to be interpreted according to their objectives and purposes.
3. The Three-Step Test’s restrictions of limitations and exceptions to exclusive rights to certain special cases does not prevent legislatures from introducing open ended limitations and exceptions, so long as the scope of such limitations and exceptions is reasonably foreseeable …
The last statement refers of course to fair use and should be a helpful rebuke to the whispering campaign being conducted in certain national capitals against the adoption of more liberal fair dealing laws. I regard the declaration as a watershed event: a statement by the crème de la crème of European scholarship that the counter-reformation is exactly that.