Authors' Welfare: Copyright as a Statutory Mechanism for Redistributing Rights

draft v. 2003.03.13

Tom W. Bell


Copyright exhibits means and ends remarkably similar to the means and ends of social welfare programs. Yet discussions about copyright do not tend to echo discussions about welfare. This paper examines that interesting contrast. The paper begins by comparing social welfare policy to copyright policy, uncovering several material parallels. Both welfare and copyright primarily aim to correct the market's failure to provide sufficient support to a particular class of beneficiaries. Both encourage rights-based claims to the entitlements that they create, too. The welfare system and the copyright system each uses statutory mechanisms to redistribute rights-rights to wealth in the first instance, rights to chattels and persons in the second-from the general public and to particular beneficiary classes-the poor and authors, respectively. Each also includes special exceptions designed to avoid inefficient or inequitable redistributions. The charitable gift deduction and other tax code provisions limit the welfare system's scope, for instance, whereas copyright law offers fair use and other defenses to infringement claims. Perhaps those and other similarities between welfare and copyright mean little. After considering various critiques to that effect, however, the paper concludes that we can learn important lessons from understanding copyright as a statutory mechanism for redistributing rights. Most notably, understanding copyright as a form of authors' welfare suggests the need for, and potential shape of, reforms to end copyright as we know it.

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"Authors' Welfare" Abstract - - v.2003.03.13