« Signing On | Main | Better to post your criticisms on Twitter, I guess »

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A salience-bias defense of marginal law reforms

Hey y’all. It’s always good to be back guesting at Prawfs. I’m looking forward to sharing thoughts about property—physical, intellectual, and otherwise—over the course of the next month. I’ll kick it off with a news item that caught my eye today: The UK just announced a forthcoming reform to its copyright law. Among other things, British citizens and subjects are now free to—wait for it—make personal copies of legally acquired copies of digital media (e.g., eBooks, CDs) for format-shifting or backup purposes.

This aspect of the British copyright reform strikes me as a perfectly good and sensible idea (as did its other features, like broadening the UK notion of fair use), but response to it sounded more in the register of “meh” or “so what?” than “hallelujah.” After all, this part of the revision legalized conduct that most people assumed was already legal (and may indeed be legal in other countries with broader notions of users’ rights), was certainly widely underenforced (because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend resources breaking into people’s homes to see if they’ve made a nefarious illicit backup CD copy of, say, Fartbarf’s “Dirty Power”*), and was, in any event, largely a moot point thanks to the increasing marginality of the relevant technologies (because, as my students helpfully point out to me when I refer to this medium for experiencing music, who uses CDs anymore, Grandpa?).

And yet I think there is something interesting about the UK’s move, not so much for the substantive impact on copyright law or user practices, but about a strategy for how and why we may want to reform laws generally. I explore this notion below the fold.

The major justification for these reforms (which grew out of the very thoughtful Hargreaves Report, which, for what it’s worth, could be a model for US copyright reform, in the vanishingly unlikely event that any congressfolks are reading this) is simply that it makes sense to update law to reflect actual practices. By one estimate, 85% of people in the UK assumed that making personal use copies was already legal, and the practice is already widespread. On this explanation, the personal-use element of the UK's copyright reform is well-taken but inconsequential, like fixing a spelling error that didn’t really confuse anyone about the meaning of a sentence.

But there’s another, broader, reason why this reform might be good even—perhaps especially—for the kind of copyright industries who were likely to resist it. This kind of conspicuous gap between social norms and practices on one hand and regulation on the other can be an embarrassment to the law that exacts outsized costs in terms of credibility. The reason that law/norm disjunctures can be especially problematic is that non-specialists may generalize about the entire law based on one conspicuous silly or outdated provision. This is a species of salience bias or the availability heuristic. Observing one particularly notable example about a place or, say, a body of law can falsely lead us to believe we have a true sense of its overall character. 

The UK group Consumer Focus made just such a leap in this setting, pointing out that the illegality of innocuous conduct like making personal backup copies had caused the credibility of all “UK copyright law to fall through the floor.” This move—deriving the character of an entire body of law from its worst provisions—is not limited to copyright. A roughly analogous phenomenon is the tendency of laypeople to assume that when one (purportedly) guilty man goes free, that the criminal law system is generally very lenient—despite the overwhelming rates of conviction for accused criminals.

This is sort of like synechdoche in law—using a part, and especially a flawed or discordant part—to represent the whole. And what it means for law reform, and in particular the reform of statues like the Copyright Act, is that law/norm disjunctures may be more problematic than is usually appreciated. We generally tend to think that these kind of disparities between law on the books and actual practices are bad because of the people they unwittingly regulate. Out of date laws could impose sanctions for conduct that has become widely, imposing outsized penalties on unsuspecting people for trivial violations. But the UK example reminds us that the law/norm gap may be a major problem for law itself, especially in light of the tendency of lay observers to infer from a single out-of-step provision that an entire regulatory structure is flawed.

*Yes I used the name of this band in this illustration for amusement (mainly my own). But also yes, there actually is a band called Fartbarf, and perhaps more surprisingly, they actually have appeal once the juvenile humor value of their name fades, assuming that you’re into 80s-inflected synth-pop performed by a bunch of guys in gorilla masks. And hey, isn’t everyone?

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 2, 2014 at 10:42 AM in Culture, Intellectual Property, Property | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A salience-bias defense of marginal law reforms:


Fair point, although credibility can be either a bug or a feature. My sense is that a number of critics of IP laws would prefer the law to be so unconnected to practice that it makes the entire field a laughingstock.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 2, 2014 10:34:57 PM

Hi Orin. Yes, I think that's exactly what critics of IP would love--lots of absurdly out of touch provisions to create fodder for their agenda that the law is generally wrongheaded and needs reform (or, more extremely, need not be obeyed). The more general point is that the deck tends to be stacked in favor of law's critics. Any body of law will have at least a few provisions that strike discordant notes for any number of features. It's an easy move for critics to cherry pick those as representative in an attempt to discredit the whole. The reason for the asymmetry is I don't think the synecdoche works as well in both directions. People tend to extrapolate about law generally from a few problematic provisions, but I'm skeptical that when one feature of a law works sensibly people are likely to assume that the entire field is similarly well-conceived.

Posted by: DF | Apr 4, 2014 12:00:45 AM

Post a comment