Post by Patrick Goold
2017 marks the bicentennial of Harvard Law School. It is fitting, therefore, that the first Private Law Workshop of the semester focused on intellectual legal history and, in part, the influence of some of Harvard’s most prominent law professors. Shyamkrishna Balganesh presented his work-in-progress Copyright as Legal Process. In it, Balganesh argues that copyright underwent a “quiet metamorphosis” in the twentieth century. Under the influence of the Legal Process School of jurisprudence, copyright evolved from private law to public law. What’s more, this evolution has entailed a fundamental transformation in the conception of law at the heart of modern copyright.
From 1870 to 1950, copyright law was, according to Balganesh, normatively and structurally part of American private law. The “private law conception” of copyright crystalized during the age of Legal Formalism (or Classical Legal Thought), and was characterized by a focus on the horizontal legal relationship between the copyright owner and the copyist. The owner’s copyright was, axiomatically, an individual right; users of the protected work were duty-bound not to copy; he who copied the work wronged the owner. This right-duty relationship was largely self-justifying. Courts rarely discussed the “purpose” of copyright law; on the occasions they did, they claimed copyright’s purpose was to uphold a right-duty relationship, and that any broader social goals were merely a welcome by-product. Furthermore, the private law conception involved a particular understanding of judicial reasoning. When adjudicating copyright disputes, courts rarely appealed to policy, nor paid particular deference to the wording or history of the Copyright Act 1909. Instead, courts tended to search for established “copyright principles” (such as the idea-expression dichotomy, or the nature of authorship) and reasoned therefrom.
Perhaps surprisingly, the private law conception of copyright – according to Balganesh – was largely maintained through the Legal Realist period. While the Realists claimed legal doctrine was indeterminate and thus were skeptical that judicial reasoning could be objective, they nevertheless valorized the judiciary (and notably a number of high-profile Realists served on the bench). Realism emphasized judicial creativity in solving cases, while simultaneously placing little faith in statutory interpretation. As a result, when adjudicating copyright disputes, courts continued to show Congress little deference, but instead trusted judicial craftsmanship to resolve the particularized problems that arose.