Monday, August 18, 2014
Judging Similarity (Part 1)
This post is by GuestPrawf Irina Manta.
I thought I would kick things off by talking a bit about the empirical intellectual property work in which I have been and continue to be engaged. Empirical work in this subject matter has been increasing in popularity in recent years after some pioneers like Barton Beebe and other scholars led the way. The relationship between social science and IP issues has fascinated me for years, so it is a much welcome trend in my eyes. Most recently, I collaborated on my own first project in that area with co-authors Shyam Balganesh and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan. The paper that resulted, Judging Similarity, will appear in the Iowa Law Review later this year, and I would like to offer a sneak peek here into some of the issues we examined.
The test for copyright infringement asks in part that fact-finders determine whether the original work and the allegedly infringing work are “substantially similar” to one another. Put differently, fact-finders—usually jurors—have to decide whether a “reasonable observer” would believe that the similarities between two works were of such a high degree as to involve wrongful appropriation. Further, fact-finders have to establish that actual copying took place, and similarity often plays a role to meet that prong as well when there is no admission of copying. While different circuits each have their own version of the copyright infringement test, they all require a showing of substantial similarity in some form or another. I expressed the concern in my earlier article “Reasonable Copyright”, 53 Boston College Law Review 1303 (2012), that the seemingly simple matter of determining similarity may create an inquiry that is particularly open to numerous cognitive biases. These biases, I argued, would distort the judicial process in a way that would likely generally benefit plaintiffs. My empirical work with Shyam and Tess allowed me to test some of these earlier intuitions I generated.
The first issue in the context of substantial similarity is that by the time the question of similarity reaches a jury, its members have already heard a great deal of evidence about the plaintiff, the defendant, the creativity involved, the process through which the work was created, the reasons for which the work was produced, the defendant’s own creative efforts and behavior, and, on occasion, the market effects of the defendant’s copying. Although the similarity finding is meant to involve no more than a comparison of the two works to assess whether they are sufficiently similar to render the copying problematic (i.e., improper), that judgment may be affected by the availability of this other evidence. The fact-finder is required to answer the question of substantial similarity through a mere comparison of the two works, which will often involve actively ignoring instinctively relevant and highly salient information. Copyright law thus seems to assume that the inquiry into substantial similarity can serve as a simple comparison of the two works, even in the face of extensive factual evidence that bears directly on the dispute in question. The fact-finder is presumed to be able to cabin and exclude from the analysis all of the evidence with which the court has been presented in the lead-up to the issue of substantial similarity.
We know from other contexts that it is very difficult to ignore salient information when performing difficult cognitive tasks. In the judicial world, for instance, many have attacked the instructions to ignore inadmissible evidence as often not only failing to alleviate the problem but in fact aggravating it by actually making the information more salient. The similarity determination may have traditionally lulled people into a false sense of confidence by creating the impression that it involves a purely perceptual task that does not contain complex moral judgments. We posited, however, that similarities would appear as more similar and dissimilarities as less obvious when the judgment was embedded in a narrative that identified an actor who intentionally engaged in copying.
As I will describe in more detail in my next post, we conducted two different studies that asked subjects to rate the level of similarity between pairs of images. We varied the instructions and extraneous information with which we provided subjects so that we could determine which factors, if any, influence what the legal system would like to see involve an entirely perceptual task. We were able to show through these studies that knowledge of copying led subjects to view two works as significantly more similar than otherwise. In addition, the belief that the original work had taken a lot of labor to create also significantly increased the similarity rating. Meanwhile, information that suggested that the junior work partially supplanted the original work in the market, i.e., that market substitution took place, did not affect the similarity rating. I will discuss our methodology and explain our results in part 2 of this post.