Copyright's Framing Problem


Copyright law has a framing problem. The problem is pervasive, unresolved, and often unnoticed, and it significantly impacts the nature and scope of copyright protection. Copyrighted works are complex: Books consist of chapters, newspapers consist of articles, and so on. Courts often need to decide whether to frame the work as one comprehensive whole, an approach we call “zooming out,” or to frame it as a combination of many small parts, an approach we call “zooming in.” This framing move occurs across many copyright doctrines: fair use, infringement analysis, statutory damages calculations, separability determination, and more.

This Article focuses on decisions heavily affected by a court’s framing choice. The results are troubling. The study of those decisions suggests that in the majority of cases, courts frame the work without noticing their framing move. When courts do explicitly provide reasoning for their framing choices, they use factors that are normatively questionable and increasingly less effective in today’s digital world. Consequently, copyrighted works are framed in an inconsistent way both across copyright law doctrines and within each doctrine. In fact, there is almost no area of copyright law in which courts consistently frame copyrighted works.

These variations in framing choices have costs. While these costs need to be acknowledged and addressed, we reject one intuitively appealing approach to addressing them. Copyright law, we show, should not provide a unified framing test, or unified definition of the “work,” across all its doctrines. Different areas of copyright law face different policy considerations. Sometimes the framing of the work itself may need to change, so that the policy balance behind copyright law can remain constant.

About the Author

Assistant Professor and Associate Professor, respectively, Michael E. Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

By uclalaw