On the Metaphysics of Intellectual Property Law

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  What is the meaning of life?  When might Godot finally show up?  Questions like this can elicit many answers, and they won’t be wrong.

Is intellectual property law the same way?  A recent 2-1 decision by the quixotic Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals so indicates.  In Garcia v. Google, Inc., a Feb. 26 decision, the appeals court reversed the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in a copyright case that would have ordered the removal from YouTube of an anti-Muslim film that included a performance by the plaintiff actress.  Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the majority, found that the plaintiff had a copyright in her own artistic performance, and that the implied license she would normally have been deemed to have granted to the filmmaker was exceeded when he used it for a polemical movie entirely unlike the “action” film that had been described to her.  Judge Randy Smith dissented, applying a strict legal analysis of the appropriate standard of review.

It seems pretty clear on reading these opinions that this was a case, if not of hard facts making bad law, at least of results-oriented reasoning by the majority, a fact not lost on the dissent.  The defendant filmmaker had lied to the plaintiff and misused her performance, and the result had been that she and everyone else associated with the film had been the subject of an Islamic fatwa and received death threats, and the plaintiff had been forced to move and take other security precautions.  It plainly strained Judge Kozinski’s view of common sense that the plaintiff could not be protected.  And although it would be completely unworkable if every actor and actress in a movie owned a copyright that could be used to hold up publication, the majority was careful to say that normally there would be at least an implied license to use the performance in the finished work.  So all of this may be a distinction without a difference.

Nevertheless it serves as a useful reminder to IP practitioners to never lose sight of the equities.  Judges no less than juries want to feel that they have done the right and moral thing.  How many of us have argued for a defendant that there was no proof of speculative damages, yet have the trier of fact come back with a damages award because they did not like the defendant’s conduct?  At the end of the day — and maybe at the beginning — this is a people business.