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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Moral Psychology of the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act

Yesterday, four members of Congress introduced the “Fair Pay, Fair Play Act,” a bill that would entitle owners of copyrights in sound recordings to recover royalties for radio airplay of those tracks on terrestrial radio stations. That performers don’t receive such royalties may seem surprising, but it’s just one of many strange outcomes generated by the statutory labyrinth that is the Copyright Act.

At first blush, the rationale for such a revision seems simple and appealing. Performers work hard to create sound recordings, so when radio stations broadcast those recordings, why shouldn’t they get paid? After all, the songwriters who wrote those tunes get a royalty each time they are played. But upon closer examination, this rationale is more puzzling. The purpose of copyright law, expressed in the Constitution, is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts (including creative innovation) by means of financial incentives secured by exclusive rights in authors’ works of authorship.

Copyright’s incentives story may explain the FPFPA going forward (performers may be more likely to create future sound recordings if they can expect more remuneration via performance rights), but this account cannot make sense of the retroactive application of the law to already-created songs. And much of the industry force behind the act comes from performers who recorded older, classic tracks who feel aggrieved that they have not gotten royalties from their hit recordings for decades.

So if incentives cannot explain this sense of entitlement to recover additional royalties for past creation, what does? One account may lie in Mark Lemley’s snappy new essay, Faith-Based IP, discussed by Amy Landers in her earlier post on this site. The musicians and Congresspeople behind FPFPA may simply be relying on the notion that copyright owners have pre-political rights that should be recognized regardless of whether the existence of those rights would drive innovation, or even regardless of whether those rights would generate social welfare. At the surface, this may be a plausible account, but I want to propound a different account, one that draws on a forthcoming paper I co-authored with Chris Buccafusco, The Moral Foundations of Copyright Infringement. I elaborate this alternative theory below the fold.

In our paper, Chris and I show that the FPFPA is hardly unique. There are countless examples in which owners of copyrighted works express outrage over unauthorized use in ways that bear no relationship to the classic IP incentives account, and that may even bear no relationship to their economic interests at all. Sometimes people even seek suppression of unauthorized use that might help them economically, such as when fashion designers sought stronger IP protection despite evidence that design piracy may actually help their brands.

This only shows the depth of the puzzle, though, not its solution. And while some have argued that authors deserve non-economically based rights in their works of authorship for reasons divorced from welfare considerations, Chris and I look instead to contemporary cognitive science for an explanation. In particular, our account invokes moral foundations theory, which posits the existence of at least five different heuristic dyads—harm/care, fairness/cheating, loyalty/subversion, purity/degradation, and authority/subversion—that describe the mental architecture of our experience of transgression.

It’s easy to explain why authors of extant sound recordings would root for the FPFPA. Everyone wants more money. But why would the situation of such authors case strike a chord with unaffected third parties such as the bill’s congressional sponsors, and even the public more broadly? Our moral-psychological account indicates that what is afoot here is instead the intuitive sense shared by many people that formal inequities (such as compensating songwriters but not performers for radio play of the same track) grate on our moral sensibilities, regardless of welfare considerations. Unlike the incentives theory, our account explains the FPFPA in its prospective and retrospective applications, since in both instances performers are equally aggrieved by the fact that songwriters get performance royalties but they do not.

This is different than a mere “rights” account because such accounts often (though not always or necessarily) descend into conclusory circularity. The idea of a right is a legal conclusion about relative entitlements, but is often used instead (and especially in some of the high-flown rhetoric about the FPFPA) as an argument for that conclusion instead (or as well). Hence the dismissals, like Lemley’s, of rights-based arguments about IP as rootless and “faith-based.”

But while Chris and I argue that the moral-psychological account provides a richer sense of non-welfarist approaches to IP (especially the instinctive responses of laypeople, including creators and owners of works of authorship, to unauthorized use) than simply dismissing them as rights-voodoo, this does not mean that copyright law should be determined by moral-psychological considerations. Our moral intuitions may feel righteous but that does not at all mean that acting on those intuitions serves the social good. After all, some of the great evil done in human history has likely been animated by a sense (however wrong) of moral righteousness.

What we end up suggesting is a moral-psychological realist approach to IP law. You can still be committed to the incentivist story of copyright while acknowledging that our moral intuitions operate in tension with those welfarist aims. In fact, you might get better outcomes from the incentivist perspective by basing copyright law on a vision of actors that acknowledges their complex moral psychology rather than assuming that they are simple utility-maximizing homines economici. How to do this, of course, is a harder question, but one suggestion we make in the paper is that copyright law should respect only lawsuits motivated by copyright-relevant harm (i.e., attempts to protect a copyright monopoly, not to seek revenge or vindicate a sense of injustice or grab extra rents).

The Moral Psychology of Copyright Infringement (available on SSRN) is forthcoming later this year in the Minnesota Law Review, but we are still making revisions, so comments are most welcome.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 14, 2015 at 04:46 PM in Article Spotlight, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Music | Permalink

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