Doctoral Research

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Copyright

Abstract

My project is motivated by a host of problems that arise in the literature of U.S. copyright law, including legal decisions and established doctrines that are alternatively arbitrary, counterintuitive, and contradictory. The central argument of my dissertation is that these problems arise from a failure in copyright law to recognize the nature of its objects, authored works, and that a coherent and stable approach to copyright must be built upon such an understanding. To this end, I outline a multidimensional ontology of authored works suitable for grounding the central principles and practical application of copyright.

Centrally, I contend, a reasonable understanding of copyright depends on grasping four dimensions of the nature of authored works:
  1. their atomic dimension, including the parts of which they are composed, and the selection and arrangement of these parts;
  2. their causal dimension, including their contexts of creation and instantiation, and the weak and strong historical links that connect a given work to others (building here on the work of Jerrold Levinson);
  3. their abstract dimension, in particular, pace Nelson Goodman, Jerrold Levinson, and Mark Sagoff, that all such works are best understood as type/token entities capable of multiple instantiation; and
  4. their categorial dimension, drawing on the work of Kendall Walton, such that multiple works belonging to mutually-exclusive categories can be embodied in the same physical object.
On an understanding of these factors, I establish conditions for the copyrightability of authored works, for the infringement of these copyrights, and for the creation of derivative works.

Finally, I consider the right of copyright. First showing how the strongest contenders for grounding this right—the Lockean and Constitutional approaches—fail to align with our understanding of authored works, I proceed to sketch an alternative approach to grounding the right of copyright—a right based on the author's creativity as realized in the authored work—building on the ontological account outlined above.