What’s IP Good For?
posted by Jessica Silbey
I am glad to be participating in this virtual symposium and reading Madhavi Sunder’s book. Professor Sunder has been thinking, reading and writing about these issues for a long time in a crowded academic space of intellectual property, economic justice and cultural contest. This book distinguishes her yet again as a strong and clear-headed voice for what we mean when we talk about IP in the public interest. For what else is law about than promoting social welfare? All law, be it public or private law, is theoretically for enhancing the “good” society. The questions lawyers and legislators and policy folks debate is what constitutes that “good” (or certainly “goods”) and how (or whether) law should be structured to promote it/them. On this precise issue I have a point of clarification, however: do we wonder whether IP (whether as a tool or a right, p. 15) is at all necessary or even important for promoting the values Professor Sunder identifies (those central human capabilities from Nussbaum)? I have been wrongly accused (on more than one occasion) of being an anti-property person (fill in your own epithet relating to dead communist and socialist leaders). I am not. But I am also not convinced that intellectual property as it exists as a regulatory mechanism in the United States (or elsewhere) in fact promotes human flourishing to the extent that justifies the exclusivity and withholding that exists with regard to scientific and cultural products around the world.
By this I mean at least the following. Professor Sunder is for sure right when she calls out “efficiency” and “incentives” as straw figures in the quest for theoretical clarity in the legal model for optimally producing and distributing goods such as medicine and music. Most people who make things – either for a long time and after intense investment in a laboratory or studio or after a short time after a walk or good nap – are not doing it in order to protect it through intellectual property laws to maximize revenue. Both qualitative and quantitative empirical work bears this out. People make things because it is what they do – it is how they process the world, it is what they love, it is the solution to a problem, it is important to them or their community. What role does law really have in this kind of making and doing process? IP law has little to do with it, unless IP funds the underlying venture (as in pharmaceutical companies’ research, and even there the figures are unclear whether 20 year patent monopolies are necessary, as opposed to leakier business tools). Labor and employment law, contract law, welfare laws (including the regulation of public utilities, in which I would include the Internet) have more do to with whether people can and do pursue creative and innovative work. The notion that because someone will have the ability to exclude others from copying their work incentivizes folks to in fact engage in the work and distribute it is simply not born about by the data.
However, there is a fine line between (1) plural incentives (p. 21) and culture as a participatory community (p. 17) which in fact generate and perpetuate creative and innovative work, and (2) the deep-seated feelings of possessive individualism that stir in so many of us, which also propel us as inevitably ego-centric individuals to make and share in ways that will be recognized and rewarded. Professor Sunder talks about “fairness through recognition” (p 96) and certainly questions of attribution and credit are central to discussions of copyright, and to a lesser extent trademark and patent law. And so it is that being seen as a person who makes and contributes is paramount to most creators and innovators (what some would call reputational interests). IP law doesn’t help with this. That is surprising to most creators and innovators, be they individuals or corporations. And it is deeply frustrating to them. But here again is an example where IP law seems orthogonal to the interests at stake.
I have more to say about how IP works (and how it doesn’t) in terms of Professor Sunder’s excellent book. But I will wait to see what others write.