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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Club: Even More on Midlevel Principles in IP Law - Response to Bracha

In a previous post I explained the concept of midlevel principles in IP law. In this post I respond to a couple of detailed points made in a very insightful post on this topic by Oren Bracha. Oren has a number of interesting things to say, but his critique has two main points: (1) the conservative bias of midlevel principles; and (2) the fuzzy nature of midlevel principles, a product of their origin in a (hypothetical) consensus-building procedure.

(1) The conservative bias: I think there are two senses of "conservative." In my view, what are conserved are meta-themes that derive from but transcend specific practices. These themes do not uniformly point to results that are "conservative" in the other sense -- tending to preserve the status quo; continuing with trends currently in place. Let me illustrate with two specific examples. When Wendy Gordon introduced the idea of "fair use as market failure," she tied together a number of emerging themes in copyright law and connected them with a large body of thought (including caselaw) that came before. But her ideas -- based largely on what I would call the efficiency principle, though surely infused also with considerations of proportionality, nonremoval (public domain), and perhaps even dignity -- were not conservative with respect to outcomes. In fact they created a revolution in consumer or user rights, by shifting the focus from the copyright owner's interests, the amount copied, etc., to higher-level issues such as transaction costs and the nature of markets for IP-protected works. 

A second example is eBay. The majority opinion, based on traditional equity doctrine (as codified in the Patent Act), was conservative in the sense that it deployed well-known rules. The Kennedy concurrence had a richer policy discussion, which centered (in my view) on the proportionality principle. The basic idea was that sometimes the automatic injunction rule gives patent owners "undue leverage" in negotiations; and that equity was flexible enough to take this into account. I see this as the embodiment of a very general principle, one that finds expression in many areas of IP law, from the rules of patent scope (enablement, written description, claim interpretation, etc.) to substantial similarity in copyright law, and so on. Again the discussion "conserved" on meta-principles by deploying a familiar theme from the body of IP law. But the outcome was not therefore necessarily conservative in the sense of preserving the staus quo. The status quo heading into the case was the automatic injunction rule. And that was rejected in favor of a more flexible approach.

(2) The fuzz factor: Oren's second point is that the midlevel principles just do not seem to have the requisite level of granularity to resolve difficult problems in IP policy. This leads him to conclude that the only way to gain true resolution is to engage each other at the (admittedly contentious) level of our foundaional commitments.

Here I would advert to the master for some guidance. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, describes a detailed multi-stage procedure by which fair institutions can be established. In the course of the discussion he says this about the problem of fuzziness:

"[O]n many questions of social and economic policy we must fall back upon a notion of quasi-pure procedural justice: laws and policies are just provided that they lie within the allowed range, and the legislature, in ways authorized by a just constitution, has in fact enacted them. This indeterminacy in the theory of justice is not in itself a defect. It is what we should expect. Justice as fairness will prove a worthwhile theory if it defines the range of justice more in accordance with our considered judgments than do existing theories, and if it singles out with greater sharpness the graver wrongs a society should avoid." (A Theory of Justice, sec. 31, pp. 200-201).

So foundational consensus will inevitably be general. But that does not mean that citizens cannot engage each other in contentious argument at more operational, implemenetation-oriented stages. The way I see things, the midlevel principles are expansive enough to cut through the generality required to agree on them. (Note that this pluralistic sensibility is a product not of the early Rawls of A Theory of Justice but of the later Rawls of Political Liberalism.) These principles admit of sharper disagreement and a deeper level of engagement than Oren seems to believe. Perhaps they require greater elaboration than my brief treatment made possible. But they are not in my view fatally vague as a vocabulary of policy debate.

I should add one additional point. Oren notes my emphasis in JIP on the complete independence of foundational commitments and midlevel principles. I have begun to rethink that a bit, based in large part on a thoughtful critique of this aspect of the book by David H. Blankfein-Tabachnick of Penn State Law School. His critique and my response are both still in process and are forthcoming in the California Law Review, so I do not want to say too much. But suffice it to say that I have rethought the "complete independence" thesis a little bit. I can see that in a few rare instances, where policy issues are in equipoise, resort to one's ultimate commitments -- the foundations of the field as one sees them -- may be useful and even necessary. So, to close with Oren's wonderful imagery, after the flash of white light on the road to Damascus, the rider surely does remount and head on down the road. But he or she is changed utterly at some level -- and that change is bound to peek out, now and then, in the clinch.

Posted by Rob Merges on January 30, 2013 at 01:52 PM in Intellectual Property, Legal Theory, Property | Permalink


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