Category: Law and Humanities

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On Information Justice

Like the other commenters on From Goods to a Good Life, I also enjoyed the book and applaud Professor Sunder’s initiative in engaging more explicitly in the values conversation than has been conventionally done in IP scholarship. I also agree with most of what the other commenters have said.  I want to offer plaudits, a few challenges, and some suggestions about future directions for this conversation.

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Is IP for People or Corporations?

Another day brings another cornucopia of exciting and important comments on my book, From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice. I thank Professors Molly Van Houweling, Jessica Silbey, Michael Madison, and Mark McKenna, and earlier Concurring Opinions commentators —Professors Deven Desai, Lea Shaver, Laura DeNardis, Zahr Said, and Brett Frischmann—for reading my book so carefully, and engaging it so helpfully. I focus here on Professor Van Houweling’s framing of an important issue arising in the discussion.

Professor Van Houweling has provoked stimulating discussion with her astute observation of two competing visions of intellectual property within the emergent “capabilities approach” school of intellectual property we identified earlier this week. Professor Van Houweling contrasts Professor Julie Cohen’s alternative justification of copyright as a tool for promoting corporate welfare (sustaining creative industries), with my attention to intellectual property laws as tools for promoting livelihood and human welfare (sustaining human beings in their quest for a good life).

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What’s IP Good For?

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.

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Viewpoint, Voting, and Structuring the Electorate

I am delighted to join the blogging community of Concurring Opinions for the month of April.  Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and Daniel Solove for their gracious invitation.

Denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions has gotten a bad rap. The reason it’s not worse is because that rap is based on only half the story.  Anyone familiar with the complexion of our prison population knows that felon disfranchisement laws extend striking racial disparities to the electoral arena.  Less known, however, is that citizens with felony convictions are excluded from the electorate, in part, because of perceptions about how this demographic might vote or otherwise affect the marketplace of ideas.  In other words, citizens with felony convictions are denied the right to vote because of their suspected viewpoint.

Picking up on this point earlier this year, Michael Dorf highlighted a dispute between Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about which of them held the most conservative position concerning the voting rights of citizens convicted of a felony.  Inventing a criminal persona named Snake, Dorf queried what issues might provoke such a person to vote: Lower protections for private property or public safety? Redistribution of public resources from law enforcement to education, health, or recreation?  Elimination of certain criminal laws?  I can fathom many other lawful motivations for voting.  However, as Dorf points out (and decidedly rejects), the underlying objection to allowing citizens with felony convictions to vote is based on an assumption that, if they could vote, they would express self-serving and illegitimate interests. In other words, the viewpoint that felons would express through voting has no place in the electoral process.

I have always assumed that my viewpoint was precisely what I and other voters are supposed to express at the ballot box.  Whether that viewpoint is shared, accepted, condoned or vehemently disdained and abhorred by others is irrelevant to the right to vote.  Not so for citizens with felony convictions.  This group of citizens is presumed to possess deviant views that justify their exclusion from the electorate and the denial of a fundamental right. Read More

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The Relationship Between Theory and Practice

The longstanding attacks on legal scholarship all seem to assume a particular relationship between theory and practice, one that I believe is flawed.  Recently, I responded to one such critique.  There are others, with Justice Roberts and many other judges and practitioners claiming that legal scholarship isn’t worth their attention and isn’t useful to the practice of law.

It seems to me that those making these critiques assume that the primary value of legal scholarship should be to (1) describe current legal doctrine to make legal research easier for practitioners; or (2) influence an immediate and direct change in the law.  In an earlier post, I argued that #2 above is an unreasonable standard.  Legal change is slow, and rarely will one article have a direct influence.  Rarely does one thing have a direct influence — change typically occurs more through an indirect influence by numerous sources.  Only in the movies or in simplistic historical accounts will we see one article or book lead to dramatic changes.  Of course, it occasionally happens, but rarely.

In this post, I want to tackle claim #1.  The treatise writers and doctrinal legal scholarship of yesteryear has diminished, though it isn’t gone.  Last I checked, there were quite a lot of treatises written by quite a lot of law professors.  But there is today a lot more theoretical scholarship.  Is this scholarship valuable if it doesn’t help in legal research?

The answer is yes for many reasons:

1. As with all humanities, the value of any particular work is hard to quantify.  What’s the value of Kafka’s The Trial or works by Shakespeare?  What’s the value of reading history?  What’s the value of learning things that don’t have direct application to one’s career?  I believe there’s a lot of value.  Reading these works opens up new ways of thinking, sparks new ideas, and helps people understand the world differently.  This can indirectly affect one’s legal practice skills by enhancing creativity, improving one’s writing style, or making one see the facts of a case in a different light. It is interesting that many of the great jurists were also avid readers of literature.  Indeed, many of the great thinkers and writers throughout history had wide-ranging intellectual interests and reading habits.  Would people like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson be as creative if they had more narrow and workmanlike intellectual exploration?  Probably not.  Would Justice Holmes have been as great without his love of the humanities?  I doubt it.

2. There is a value in critiquing legal decisions and laws, even if the critique winds up remaining in dissent.  Why do justices bother to write dissents?  After all, it often takes decades if not 40-50 years for the Supreme Court to change the law.  They write dissents in the hope that one day the Court will see things differently.  They write them to make a record.  There is a value in criticizing legal opinions and laws even if it doesn’t immediately result in a change.  Indeed, many of the critiques of legal decisions and laws that I read in legal scholarship are very powerful ones.  Courts and lawmakers should pay more attention, as the scholarship often reveals logical flaws in reasoning, clear errors in applying precedent, assumptions that are based on faulty facts, assumptions that are wrong based on empirical evidence, or assumptions that are contrary to widely-accepted conclusions in science or social science.   Courts and legislatures may hide their heads in the sand, but that shouldn’t be a justification for criticizing legal scholarship — it should be a basis for criticizing courts and lawmakers.

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The Usefulness of Legal Scholarship

A reader of my post about the N.Y. Times critique of legal education writes, in regard to the value of legal scholarship:

I happen to be on the editorial board of a T14 law school’s law review, so I have to cite check and read articles regularly. Of those I’ve read, I can’t think of a single one I thought would be useful to a practicing lawyer. The problem is, in my experience, most seem to advocate a fundamental change in philosophy to an area of law that diverges from what precedent would suggest. To me, this seems extremely unhelpful, because A. Lower courts aren’t likely to accept a grand new theory that seems to contradict what SCOTUS is saying, B. As far as I can tell SCOTUS seems not to usually change its theory either, and C. I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.

This leads me to be inclined to believe that most law review articles are useless. Are you saying my sample is unrepresentative of what’s out there? Or do I simply have a narrower definition of usefulness? Could you perhaps suggest some articles from the past year that in your mind represented useful legal scholarship?

This commentator assumes that usefulness is the equivalent of being accepted by the courts.  I quarrel with this view for many reasons:

1. An article can have an influence on cases, even if difficult to demonstrate.  Many courts don’t cite law review articles even when they rely on them.  Judges are notorious for not being particularly charitable with citations.  They often copy verbatim parts of briefs, for example.  If a law professor relies on a scholarly work even in a minor way, the professor will typically cite to the work.  Not so for courts.

2. Most articles will not change the law.  Changing the law is quite difficult, and if most law review articles changed the law, the law would be ridiculously more dynamic than it currently is.

3. No matter what discipline or area, most of the things produced are not going to be great.  Most inventions are flops.  Most books, songs, movies, TV shows, art works, architecture, or anything produced are quite forgettable and will likely be forgotten.  Great lasting works only come around infrequently, no matter what the field.

4. Most people are forgettable too.  In the law, most practitioners and judges have been forgotten.  Only a few great ones are remembered.  Of the judges who are most well-known, it is interesting that many were more theoretical in nature and had a major impact in changing the law — typically in ways law professors might change the law.  Think of Benjamin Cardozo, who wrote many articles and books and who radically changed the law.  Think of Felix Frankfurter, a former law professor.  Think of Louis Brandeis.  Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  These were jurists who were thinkers.  They were readers.  They were literary.  They were writers of scholarship too.  Maybe the forgettable practitioners and judges are the ones who ignore legal scholarship.

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Q&A with Lior Strahilevitz about Information and Exclusion

Lior Strahilevitz, Deputy Dean and Sidley Austin Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School recently published a brilliant new book, Information and Exclusion (Yale University Press 2011).  Like all of Lior’s work, the book is creative, thought-provoking, and compelling.  There are books that make strong and convincing arguments, and these are good, but then there are the rare books that not only do this, but make you think in a different way.  That’s what Lior achieves in his book, and that’s quite an achievement.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lior about the book. 

Daniel J. Solove (DJS): What drew you to the topic of exclusion?

Lior Jacob Strahilevitz (LJS):  It was an observation I had as a college sophomore.  I lived in the student housing cooperatives at Berkeley.  Some of my friends who lived in the cooperatives told me they felt morally superior to people in the fraternities and sororities because the Greek system had an elaborate, exclusionary rush and pledge process.  The cooperatives, by contrast, were open to any student.  But as I visited friends who lived in the various cooperative houses, the individual houses often seemed no more heterogeneous than the fraternities and sororities.  That made me curious.  It was obvious that the pledging and rushing process – formal exclusion – created homogeneity in the Greek system.  But what was it that was creating all this apparent homogeneity in a cooperative system that was open to everyone?  That question was one I kept wondering about as a law student, lawyer, and professor.

That’s why page 1 of the book begins with a discussion of exclusion in the Greek system.  I start with really accounts of the rush process by sociologists who studied the proxies that fraternity members used to evaluate pledges in the 1950s (attire, diction, grooming, firm handshakes, etc.)  The book then brings us to the modern era, when fraternity members peruse Facebook profiles that provide far more granular information about the characteristics of each pledge.  Proxies still matter, but the proxies are different, and those differences alter the ways in which rushing students behave and fraternities exclude.

DJS: What is the central idea in your book?

LJS: The core idea is that asymmetric information largely determines which mechanisms are used to exclude people from particular groups, collective resources, and services.  When the person who controls a resource knows a lot about the people who wish to use it, she will make decisions about who gets to access it.  Where she lacks that information, she’ll develop a strategy that forces particular groups to exclude themselves from the resource, based on some criteria.  There’s a historical ebb and flow between these two sorts of strategies for exclusion, but we seem to be in a critical transition period right now thanks to the decline of practical obscurity in the information age.

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Constitutional Protestantism or Constitutional Televangelism

I appreciate Doug taking up questions from my earlier post and I think he’s right about the central role elites play in interpreting constitutional texts.

I think this is yet another area where Jack’s analogy (or really, Sandy Levinson’s analogy, which Jack credits generously) between constitutional faith and religious faith, between the Bible and the Constitution, is highly instructive.  The Protestant idea that we all can read and interpret the Word for ourselves is just that—an idea.  It is an important idea for reasons I’ll say something about in a second, but it’s somewhat aspirational.  One can, and some people do, believe in the authority or even the inerrancy of the Bible without reading it much (or at all).  It is also possible to read it without understanding it very well.  Most people today report that they find Biblical text hard to understand (although the irony is not lost on me that the survey I just linked to saying so was conducted by the Vatican).

Luckily, if you have a hard time reading or understanding your Bible or your Constitution, help is on the way!  Many experts and leaders—elites, as Doug says—stand ready to help by offering interpretations, often complete with textual citations, that ordinary people can understand (and there is no need for most people to actually go look up the citations).  Very often these authorities offer their interpretations in a manner that is charismatic, memorable, and convincing.  Their interpretations are all the more convincing when they happen to square with one’s own pre-existing beliefs about what the Bible or Constitution ought to say or mean.

So does all this mean the Protestant idea has no practical effect?  Quite the contrary.  The Protestant idea has an extremely important effect.  The normative premise that we all are able to read and interpret the text for ourselves means that we do not have to trust the priests in the temple; we do not have to trust the Justices who emerge from behind the curtain of the Court.  We get to decide for ourselves who to trust, whose interpretive authority to respect.  This is, as Jack says, a great theology for dissent.  We can decide we agree with people who say that on a particular question, all nine Justices got it wrong.

This is why Jack’s conception of constitutional Protestantism is linked in a such a deep way with his account of the role social movements play in constitutional change.  But in my view, the mechanism by which constitutional Protestantism empowers social movements to make constitutional changes has little to do with ordinary people literally reading the constitutional text and coming up with their own interpretations of its meaning. Read More

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What kind of constitution is the subject of this book?

First, thanks to Danielle and Jack for the opportunity to participate in this symposium.  I’m happy to do it because I think this is a fantastic book.

Among many other things, this book offers a particularly well-developed story about the role that stories play in constitutional argument and constitutional change.  I thought I’d start there, because that piece is at the foundation of the argument of the book.  Also it has the fun property that once you start thinking in its terms, you start seeing examples everywhere.  Indeed you see these moves even in debates that are not, explicitly, constitutional debates.

And this raises an interesting question: to what extent is this book about faith in the Constitution, and to what extent is it, instead, about faith and redemption in something like the broad political/constitutional project of the United States?  It is hard to separate these things.  But let’s look at places where the two might plausibly come apart.  Jack (citing Mark Graber) notes that in recent years, among liberals, the canonical example of a policy problem the constitution does not address is the distribution of income and wealth (132-33).  So let’s begin with the stories we tell about fiscal policy.

Last April, President Obama made a speech on the deficit and fiscal policy in which he offered a defense of Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance, along with Social Security.  He said: “From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity.  More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.  But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”  After discussing such collective projects as schools, science, the military, and the interstate highway system, Obama argued that Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and Social Security were part of this “American belief that we are all connected,” which is in part a “conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity.”  He argued, “We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.”

Rick Santorum sharply criticized these comments in a speech in June.  Santorum quoted the lines above and responded, “Ladies and gentlemen, America was a great country before 1965!”  When the applause died down, he continued: “Social conservatives understand that America is a great country because it was founded great.  Our founders, calling upon, in the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Judge, calling upon Divine Providence, said what was at the heart of American exceptionalism.  In the Declaration of Independence it said ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.’  You see, our founders understood that we were going to take the principles, Judeo-Christian principles, that had been out there for centuries, and we were going do something radical.  We were actually going to found a government upon these principles.”

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Constitutional Redemption: Narratives, Historical and Fictional

It’s an honor to be here, commenting on Jack’s hugely impressive and erudite work of constitutional scholarship. If you haven’t read it yet, the most useful thing I can say to you is to stop reading what I have to say and go read what he does. I especially admire his discussion of the role of narrative in constitutional argument, and it is that part of the book that I’d like to focus on. I should say at the outset that I don’t have any criticisms—and I may not even have any comments!—to make. Really, what I have are some questions. (And I don’t mean that in the standard, law professor-y “I’m going to make my comments and then add a question mark at the end” sense. I really don’t have answers for these questions.)

Jack lays out his own narrative of constitutional development at pages 18-23. It is a powerful narrative, one that describes American constitutional development as a slow and always-incomplete attempt to redeem the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which Jack understands as embodying an attack on “the social structure of monarchy” (p. 23), or, even more ambitiously, a “demand for social equality” (p. 22). There is a great deal to find appealing in this narrative, and its brevity should not lead us to underestimate its potency (as, I think, Adrian Vermeule did in his review of the book).

Others may wish to comment on the lessons Jack draws from this narrative, or even on its historical accuracy. But that’s not my interest here. Instead, I’m interested in why the narrative’s claim to historical accuracy is important in the first place.

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