Intellectual Property Responsibilities
Intellectual Property Responsibilities
Intellectual Property Responsibilities

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    We hear all the time about intellectual property rights — what they are, how they are violated, how we should respect them, how creativity and innovation are going to suffer if we don't.

    Fair enough. But I want to talk not just about intellectual property rights, but about intellectual property responsibilities. By which I mean the things that IP owners should be prepared (or required) to do in return for those valuable rights that the law grants them and that we're encouraged to respect.

    So I'm going to do a series of posts proposing some Intellectual Property Responsibilities. And I would be grateful for your help — if you have a suggestion for something you think IP owners should do, or should be required to do, make it!

    Here's my first, and it pertains to copyrights. From the first U.S. copyright statute in 1790, to the copyright revision of 1909, all authors were required to register (i.e., provide ownership and contact information) in order to receive a copyright. After 1909 the registration requirement was softened somewhat (it was tied to a separate requirement that copyright owners deposit a copy of their work with the Library of Congress, and noncompliance was punished by a fine, rather than, as previously, via forfeiture of copyright) but registration remained a responsiblity of the copyright owner all the way up to 1978. Similarly, copyright owners were required to re-register, or renew, their copyrights at a point fairly early in the copyright term (for most of our history, at the 28-year mark). Failure to renew would end the copyright, and send the work to the public domain.

    Contrast this nearly 200 year history with what we have now. Now, copyright arises automatically and indiscriminately whenever an author fixes creative expression in a tangible medium. Put into plain English, if you and I sit down for a beer, and I sketch you on a cocktail napkin, I have a copyright the moment I lift my pen. Automatically. Whether I register the work or not. And the copyright lasts until and die, and then for 70 years thereafter.

    Why is this important? In 2004 I published an article in the Stanford Law Review, Reform(aliz)ing Copyright, arguing that our former system of copyright formalities — a set of Intellectual Property Responsibilities that included registration and renewal — did a good job of focusing copyright on the type of valuable commercial works that the system of law exists to protect, while leaving all other works — like my cocktail napkin sketch — unregulated. In our Internet age, registration is even more important, because it allows anyone who wishes to use a copyrighted work to find out who to contact in order to ask permission and, if necessary, negotiate a license. Respect for copyright owners' rights, in other words, suggests that copyright owners should fulfull their responsibility to register their works.

    So, Intellectual Property Responsibility #1: Copyright owners should register their works.

    The copyright law currently provides for a voluntary registry. Responsible copyright owners should use it, at least for works they intend to market. And I believe we should think about re-introducing mandatory registration. In my Stanford article, I sketch out a way we can do this without running afoul of our obligations under the Berne Convention, which is the international treaty governing copyright relations. Suffice to say that my ideas about mandatory registration have sparked opposition from some authors, who apparently feel that intellectual property is all about their rights and others' responsibilities.

    What do you think?