Copyright Week: You Bought It, You Own It

Having launched in the middle of Copyright Week, it seems only fitting to consider the topic-of-the-day’s effect on public interest authorship. Today’s topic is “you bought it, you own it,” which is less a statement of the law than it is a common-sense aspirational principle that sometimes applies to the sale of copyrighted goods.

The benefits of the “first sale doctrine,” under which the “you bought it, you own it” principle is most likely to apply, are often discussed in the context of consumer protection — for instance, it is deeply troubling when a “retailer” of digital goods decides to disappear a “purchased” product and people take notice for good reason. But in a larger sense, the transition away from selling and toward licensing in the information economy is also hazardous to the information stewardship that allows creative works to remain available when their publishers lose interest.

Information is increasingly provided less as a good and more as a service — when we stream movies from Netflix, no additional copies are made available for the public to archive and protect. To the extent this shift allows for widespread access to the vast private libraries of material that today’s Amazons and Netflixes can provide, the transition does have positive implications for the public’s access to knowledge, information, and creative works. However, a knowledge economy based solely around centralized control is woefully incomplete. Such a system cannot provide for information stewardship that historically benefits from diffuse ownership[1] or for the “read/write” access to knowledge on which so much creativity depends. In the pre-digital world, the first sale doctrine was a safety valve of inestimable importance; a principle that allowed copies to be lawfully transferred, stored, annotated, and shared. As our access to information becomes ever more digital, keeping that concept alive in some form is of foundational importance.


[1] Think, for example, of the lost Dr. Who episodes recovered in Nigeria, which were lost because the BBC would, as a general practice, record over old tapes.

What is Public Interest Authorship?

Hello, World! Welcome to the Public Interest Authorship blog, where we will discuss policy, news, events, tools, and resources related to the furtherance of authorship and publication in the public interest.

What is public interest authorship?

People create — that is, people author — for any number of reasons (self-expression, communication, and even fame and fortune come to mind). For many authors, and particularly for academic authors, spreading knowledge is a leading motivation. In the jargon of American copyright law, this advancement of knowledge is “the Progress of Science” for which our copyright law was designed. The public interest in enabling authors to broadly distribute their works is the “public interest” in “public interest authorship.”

What’s there to blog about?

While the digital age allows for the unprecedented dissemination of creative works, authors seeking to make their works available to the broadest possible audience are nonetheless confronted with any number of obstacles. These barriers may arise from within copyright law itself, from the economics of authorship and publication, or as a result of the information overload that can occur in the absence of curation.

Accepting that it is in our collective interest to encourage the wide dissemination of information that authors wish to share, the Public Interest Authorship blog will track and comment on developments in law and litigation, in publishing, and in information organization that further, prejudice, or otherwise affect authors in their role as distributors of information.

Stick around!

Now is an exciting and challenging time for public interest authorship — the Authors Guild litigation against HathiTrust and Google Books continues as the important fair use rulings in those cases are challenged on appeal; academic publishing giant Elsevier is taking down authors’ postings of their own articles in academic fora; wheels are spinning toward “Next Great Copyright Act“; and on top of everything else, we happen to be in the middle of Copyright Week. So stay tuned — we’ve got lots coming.