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Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law

Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law

by Jason Mazzone

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Intellectual property law in the United States does not work well and it needs to be reformed—but not for the reasons given by most critics. The issue is not that intellectual property rights are too easily obtained, too broad in scope, and too long in duration. Rather, the primary problem is overreaching by publishers, producers, artists, and others who abuse


Intellectual property law in the United States does not work well and it needs to be reformed—but not for the reasons given by most critics. The issue is not that intellectual property rights are too easily obtained, too broad in scope, and too long in duration. Rather, the primary problem is overreaching by publishers, producers, artists, and others who abuse intellectual property law by claiming stronger rights than the law actually gives them. From copyfraud—like phony copyright notices attached to the U.S. Constitution—to lawsuits designed to prevent people from poking fun at Barbie, from controversies over digital sampling in hip-hop to Major League Baseball's ubiquitous restriction on sharing any "accounts and descriptions of this game," overreaching claims of intellectual property rights are everywhere.

Overreaching interferes with legitimate uses and reproduction of a wide variety of works, imposes enormous social and economic costs, and ultimately undermines creative endeavors. As this book reveals, the solution is not to change the scope or content of intellectual property rights, but to create mechanisms to prevent people asserting rights beyond those they legitimately possess.

While there are many other books on intellectual property, this is the first to examine overreaching as a distinct problem and to show how to solve it. Jason Mazzone makes a series of timely proposals by which government, organizations, and ordinary people can stand up to creators and content providers when they seek to grab more than the law gives them.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jason Mazzone's Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law adds a strong voice to the chorus of those who argue on behalf of the public . . . Copyfraud arguably presents the most lucid, extensively detailed description of this phenomenon to date and Mazzone may well be the first to offer a clear typology of the various abuses falling under this rubric."—Jacyn Selby, International Journal of Communication

"Yo, this engaging book isn't afraid to expose some of the music industry's most widespread 'dirty little secrets.' Although the Copyright System has its roots in the U.S. Constitution and is designed to promote and reward creativity on an 'honor' system, the Copyright Laws themselves have been hijacked and exploited by less than honorable people. If you are a musician or songwriter, read this book to avoid becoming yet another victim."—George Clinton

"Jason Mazzone powerfully crystallizes a set of digital copyright problems not focused on infringement by the public, but rather overreaching by copyright holders. He makes a crucial contribution to a framework for shoring up the governance of bits in the digital age: the formidable powers of intellectual property should be matched by proper policing of its boundaries."—Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard University, author of The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It

"Jason Mazzone masterfully shows the astonishing ways in which content industries misuse their intellectual property rights—and how to rein them in. This book will transform debates about balancing private property with public access to information in the digital age. A must read for anyone who cares about the future of creativity."—Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

Library Journal
The purpose of copyright is to protect content creators and provide the community with works in the public domain. But the proprietors of copyrights and guardians of the public domain have flipped that ideal, using the law to squelch competition and criticism, argues Mazzone (Gerald Baylin Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law Sch.). Mazzone shows that, by overreaching, publishers, libraries, and museums have managed to limit the public's use of the public domain—material that belongs to everyone. He illustrates how college students are forced to pay royalties for material that nobody owns and how libraries and archives strangle research with access restrictions on public domain materials. Patent law has penalties for those who falsely claim to have patents on things—but there are no penalties for false claims of copyright. VERDICT This is a reasoned, calm manifesto for reform; the trouble is that it's easier for the little guy to pay a ransom than to fight in court. A must-read for all content creators.—Michael O. Eshleman, Kings Mills, OH

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Stanford University Press
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By Jason Mazzone

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6006-5

Chapter One


A pocket version of the U.S. Constitution popular among law students contains a copyright notice along with this warning: "No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means ... without permission in writing from the publisher." The notice and warning are obviously absurd. Whatever the Constitution's framers and ratifiers had in mind when they authorized Congress to create laws protecting copyright, they did not expect that somebody would one day claim a copyright in the Constitution itself. Imagine for a moment, though, a world in which the U.S. Constitution is copyrighted. Lawyers would need permission to quote the provisions of the Constitution that help their clients' causes. Newspaper columnists discussing freedom of speech would need to license the text of the first amendment. Lawsuits would be filed to remove unauthorized copies of the Constitution from high school classrooms. Reproducing the text of the Constitution in a book or on a website would require advance clearance. Government agents would raid warehouses and stores and seize unauthorized "We the people" coffee mugs, tote bags, and T-shirts.

There is a good reason nobody owns a copyright in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution belongs to everyone. Along with millions of other works, the Constitution is part of the public domain. The public domain is the collection of works that are not protected by copyrights. A work becomes part of the public domain when the copyright on it expires, because the work did not qualify for copyright protection in the first place, or because the creator of the work has given the work to the public. Public domain works are free for anybody to use and reproduce because nobody has the right to control their use.

Under the law, the word fraud is used to describe a false claim by one person to another. Copyfraud is therefore the term I use to refer to the act of falsely claiming a copyright in a public domain work. In the typology I use in this book to classify forms of overreaching, copyfraud entails a false claim to intellectual property where none exists.

Examples of copyfraud abound. In general, copyright belongs to the author of a published work and expires seventy years after the author's death. Yet copyright notices appear on modern reprints of poems by William Cullen Bryant (who died in 1878) and on the piano scores of Ludwig van Beethoven (who died in 1827). There is no basis for claiming copyright in reproductions of two-dimensional public domain artworks. Yet modern publishers hawk greeting card versions of Monet's water lilies, Van Gogh's sunflowers, and Cézanne's apples—each bearing a copyright mark. Poster-sized reproductions of works by Vermeer and Da Vinci, each embossed with a false copyright notice, brighten the walls of college dorm rooms across the country. Archives claim blanket copyrights in everything in their collections, including historical works as to which copyright, which probably never belonged to the archive in the first place, has long expired. The publishers of school textbooks do not explain that their copyright notices apply only to the authors' own words and original arrangements and not to the books' reproductions of the declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg address, supreme Court cases, or George Washington Crossing the Delaware. Corporate websites include blanket copyright notices even when they feature the U.S. flag, list stock reports, contain a calendar, or rely on other materials squarely in the public domain.

Copyfraud has serious consequences. In addition to enriching publishers who assert false copyright claims at the expense of legitimate users, copyfraud stifles valid forms of reproduction and creativity and undermines free speech. False copyright claims, which are often accompanied by the threat of litigation for reproduction of a work without the putative owner's permission, result in users seeking licenses and paying fees to reproduce works that are free for everyone to use, or altering their creative projects to excise the un-copyrighted material. Copyfraud also fosters misunderstanding concerning the scope of intellectual property law, which further emboldens publishers and other content providers to claim rights beyond those they actually possess.


The point of copyright is to promote creativity. Under the Constitution, Congress has power "[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The Constitution therefore empowers Congress to create copyright protections in order to encourage creative production by allowing authors to monopolize, for a limited period, revenues from their own works. As the supreme Court has explained, copyright law is thus instrumental. The monopoly that a copyright confers "is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors." The ultimate goal is an enrichment of publicly accessible works: "[p]rivate motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts."

Congress enacted the first federal copyright statute in 179?. Our modern copyright statute is the Copyright act of 1976, which took effect in 1978, and which itself has subsequently been revised and updated. Its granting of monopolistic rights to authors gives copyright an uneasy relationship with the first amendment, which, in general, prohibits government from conferring exclusive rights in speech. The Constitution strikes a delicate balance between supporting authorship and suppressing speech by permitting copyrights only "for limited times." Accordingly, under federal statutory law, the term of copyright protection is limited. Once a copyright expires, the work falls into the public domain, where anybody is free to use it.

The Copyright act provides that for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the copyright in the work lasts until seventy years following the author's death. For works with multiple authors, the term is seventy years after the death of the last surviving author. The duration of copyright protection for pre-1978 works is more complicated; other writers have usefully summarized the various rules. For present purposes it suffices to note four major categories of works that are no longer protected by copyright and are therefore in the public domain: (1) any work published in the united states before 1923, (2) any work published in the united states between 1923 and 1963 for which copyright was not renewed, (3) unpublished works by authors who died more than seventy years ago, and (4) all works published outside the united states before July 1, 19?9.

Congress has also limited the kinds of works that may be copyrighted. Under the Copyright act, a copyright belongs to the author of a work if the work meets three requirements. The first requirement is fixation. to enjoy copyright protection, a work must be fixed in a "tangible medium of expression." This means that the work must be in some concrete form, such as occurs when a work is typed on a page, posted to a website, or painted on a canvas. Works that are not fixed—for example, a speech that is not recorded or written down—are not eligible for copyright. The second requirement to merit copyright protection is originality. The work must be the author's own work in that the author must have created it. If a work contains some original elements and some elements the author has copied from somewhere else, only the original elements of the work are eligible for new copyright protection. the originality requirement does not mean that the work has to be novel. If I draw a squiggle on a page, the squiggle is original so long as I independently created it. It doesn't matter that thousands of people before me have created the same squiggle: so long as in drawing my squiggle I didn't copy somebody else's, the squiggle is deemed original. the third requirement a work must meet in order to be eligible for copyright protection is that the work must entail minimal creativity. this is a separate requirement from that of originality. A work can be original without being creative. The standard for creativity is not very high. One need not be a Mozart to produce a creative work within the meaning of the copyright law. However, some works do not satisfy the requirement. For example, while my squiggle might be my own work, and thus original, a court might determine that drawing the squiggle did not entail sufficient creativity on my part and thus the squiggle is not protected by a copyright. Making use of somebody else's work does not preclude a finding of minimal creativity, which can lie in how the prior work has been reworked or arranged. If I copy the Mona Lisa, for example, but I give her blonde hair, earrings, and a frown, my work is minimally creative.

An implication of the minimal creativity requirement is that copyright protection does not depend on the degree of effort that goes into producing a work. It may take years to produce a particular work, and the work might be fixed in a tangible form and original, but if the work is not also minimally creative, it is not eligible for protection. Mere exertion—sweat of the brow—does not a copyright confer. An important supreme Court decision illustrates the principle. In 1991, in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Company, the supreme Court held that there can be no copyright in a telephone directory that merely compiles names, towns, and telephone numbers. Names, towns, and telephone numbers are all facts. Facts, the Court said, cannot be copyrighted because no author created them. The directory of facts could also not be copyrighted. Despite the effort involved in compiling the information in the directory, an alphabetical listing of names, locations, and telephone numbers did not entail original creativity. Anybody preparing a directory of telephone numbers would arrange the information in the same way. Invoking the language of the Constitution, the Court stated, "The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but 'to promote the progress of science and useful arts.'" Similarly, databases that merely compile information or works by others are not protected by copyright unless the compilation involves creativity in the selection or arrangement.

An important corollary to these three requirements for copyright eligibility is that copyright law does not protect facts, ideas, theories, or discoveries but only protects the way in which those things are expressed. If, for example, I conduct research on the habits of bumblebees and write a book in which I report my findings, copyright law does not prevent somebody else from writing about my findings. Only my expression of the research findings is eligible for copyright protection. As the supreme Court has stated, "every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication."


Copyrights are limited in scope and duration. The public domain comprises works that are not protected. Why, then, does copyfraud occur? one important explanation is that the law itself enables this form of overreaching. A basic defect of modern copyright law is that statutory protections for copyright are not balanced with affirmative protections for the public domain. Congress has enumerated the rights of copyright holders but has left protections for the public domain largely dependent upon holders respecting the limits on those enumerated rights. Under these conditions, copyfraud flourishes.

Remedies for infringement of copyright are severe. A copyright owner can seek a court order to prevent publication of an infringing work; impounding and disposition of infringing articles; actual damages and profits earned by the infringing party or statutory damages up to $30,000 per work and $150,000 per work in the case of willful infringement (meaning that the defendant knew that it was infringing the plaintiff 's copyright); and, at the discretion of a court, costs in bringing the lawsuit and associated attorneys' fees. Under rules of secondary liability, those who facilitate copyright infringement by others may also be held liable. In addition to civil remedies, section 506(a) of the Copyright act contains a criminal infringement provision, with the possibility of prison time and substantial monetary penalties. Further, section 506(d) of the Copyright act criminalizes fraudulent removal of copyright notices from works. Beyond the Copyright act itself, other federal statutes provide civil and criminal remedies for specific kinds of copyright violations.

By contrast, the Copyright act provides no civil remedy against publishers who improperly claim copyright over materials that are part of the public domain. Just two provisions of the Copyright act deal in any manner at all with improper assertions of ownership to public domain materials. Section 506(c) criminalizes fraudulent uses of copyright notices. It states, "any person who, with fraudulent intent, places on any article a notice of copyright or words of the same purport that such person knows to be false, or who, with fraudulent intent, publicly distributes or imports for public distribution any article bearing such notice or words that such person knows to be false, shall be fined not more than $2,500." section 506(e) also punishes, by the same amount, knowingly making a false representation of a material fact in the application for copyright registration. Yet these criminal provisions are all bark and no bite. In requiring knowledge and intent, the provisions impose a higher level of proof than is needed to show copyright infringement in a civil action. In addition, false assertions of copyright carry much smaller penalties than those for copyright infringement. Most seriously—and in contrast to the general pattern of copyright law—the provisions do not create a private cause of action; that is, they do not allow for individuals to bring a claim in court to enforce the law. Left to the government, these provisions are almost never enforced. During 2008, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available, not a single defendant was prosecuted for fraudulent uses of a copyright notice under section 506(c) or for making false representations in registering a copyright under 506(e). During the entire period from 1994 to 2008, just four cases were filed under section 506(c) and eight cases were filed under 506(e).

Other features of our system of copyrights reflect a similar imbalance between affirmative protections that exist for copyright and for the public domain. The federal Copyright office registers copyrighted works, but there exists no federally supported public domain office to catalog publicly owned materials. While the symbol © designates what is copyrighted, there is no corresponding mark to indicate public domain works. A variety of federal agencies, including the FBI and the department of Justice, are charged with protecting copyrights. However, no federal agency is specially charged with safeguarding the public domain.

The end result is that copyright law itself creates an irresistible urge for publishers and other content providers to claim ownership, however spurious, in everything. Facing no threat of civil action under the Copyright act for copyfraud, and little risk of criminal penalty, publishers and other content providers are free to put copyright notices on everything and to assert the strongest possible claims to ownership. Copyright law itself enables overreaching. Like a "for sale" sign attached to the brooklyn bridge, the upside to attaching a false copyright notice is potentially huge—some naive soul might actually pay up. The only downside is that the false copyright notice will be ignored by savvy individuals who understand the legal rules and call the bluff. Under these conditions, content providers have every incentive to try to sell off pieces of the public domain. Indeed, that is exactly what many content providers have done.


Excerpted from COPYFRAUD and OTHER ABUSES of INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAW by Jason Mazzone Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jason Mazzone has taught intellectual property law and constitutional law at Brooklyn Law School since 2003; he is the youngest faculty member in the school's history to hold an endowed chair. A renowned legal scholar, Mazzone has written about legal issues for the New York Times and other national newspapers, and he is a regular media commentator and a blogger at the popular legal blog, Balkinization. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, a master's degree from Stanford University, and a master's and doctorate from Yale University. Before entering academia, he was a law clerk to two federal judges and he practiced intellectual property law in New York City.

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