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Copyright and the pursuit of justice: a Rawlsian analysis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

Deming Liu*
Newcastle Law School, UK


This paper seeks to explore copyright from the perspective of John Rawls's egalitarian conception of justice. It first evaluates the classical theories for copyright. Next, it examines Rawls's principles of justice with particular emphasis on the difference principle. Then, it applies Rawls to the design of copyright law and debates on two doctrines of copyright law – namely the idea/expression dichotomy and the relevance of the merit of a work for copyright. The significance of the debate is to show that Rawls's perspective on justice offers a better justification for copyright and its principles and would potentially induce better justice.

Research Article
Copyright © Society of Legal Scholars 2012

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98. I acknowledge my thanks to one reviewer for this point.

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107. Ibid.

108. ‘Under a contractarian, constructivist view of justice, property is not the basis for justice but an instrument of justice. By the time the original parties come to consider property rights, the principles of justice are already out in the open. This commits the original parties to thinking about property rights in an instrumental fashion’ (Drahos, above n 25, p 193).

109. William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) book II, ch 1, p 2.

110. The House of Lords in Jeffreys v Boosey (1854) 4 HLC 815 agreed with Pollock's opinion of copyright law, as cited in Cornish and Llewelyn, above n 13, p 377.

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115. Ibid, p 202.

116. Pinker, above n 51, p 58.

117. Ibid.

118. Daniels, above n 74, at 251.

119. (1894) 3 CH 420 at 427.

120. Baigent v Random House Group Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 247 at 255.

121. Ibid.

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130. (1769) 98 Eng Rep 201 at 233. See also a similar exposition by the US President Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson letter to Isaac Mcpherson, 13 August 1813, cited in Graham v John Deere Company of Kansas (1966) 383 US 1 at 8–9, n 2.

131. [1964] 1 WLR 272 at 291.

132. Drahos, above n 25, p 50.

133. Hughes, above n 28, at 314.

134. Ibid, at 329.

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137. Ibid, at 1570.

138. Conventions or social rules would require others to acknowledge the source of the ideas. This recognition demonstrates a social value in a democratic society as Rawls said in A Theory of Justice that: ‘Human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities) and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized or the greater the complexity.…The companion effect to the Aristotelian principle is that the esteem and admiration of others is desired, the activities favoured by the Aristotelian principle are good for other persons as well’ (pp 375–376, as cited in Audard, above n 69, p 108).

139. Rawls, above n 53, p 100.

140. Ibid, pp 101–102.

141. Ibid, p 100.

142. IPC Media Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2005] EWHC 317 at 444.

143. Baigent v Random House Group Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 247 at 255.

144. L B (Plastics) Ltd v Swish Products Ltd [1979] RPC 551 at 629.

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147. See, eg, Bently and Sherman, above n 42, p 164; also, as Peter Smith J put it: ‘The line to be drawn is to enable a fair balance to be struck between protecting the rights of the author and allowing literary development’ (Baigent v Random House Group Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 247 at 255).

148. Per Peterson J, University of London Press, Limited v University Tutorial Press [1916] 2 Ch 601 at 608.

149. Hollinrake v Truswell [1894] 3 Ch 420 at 427–428.

150. Per Oliver LJ, Exxon Corporation v Exxon Insurance Consultants International Ltd [1982] Ch 119 at 144.

151. CDPA 1988, s 4(a).

152. Per Laddie J, Metix (UK) Ltd v G H Maughan (Plastics) Ltd [1997] FSR 718 at 722.

153. Laddie et al, above n 146, p 193.

154. CDPA 1988, s 4(c).

155. Torremans, P Holyoak & Torremans Intellectual Property (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 6th edn, 2010) p 200 Google Scholar.

156. CDPA 1988, s 4(1)(c). Note that s 4(1)(a) specifies ‘irrespective of artistic quality’, but as with s 4(1)(c), s 4(1)(b) makes no such specification. However, it is believed that s 4(1)(b), a work of architecture being a building, has no requirement for artistic quality because s 4(2) defines ‘building’ as including ‘any fixed structure’, hence ‘structures devoid of artistic quality’ (Laddie et al, above n 146, p 192). So that only leaves a work of artistic craftsmanship without the qualification ‘irrespective of artistic quality’ in the category of artistic work under the CDPA 1988.

157. George Hensher Ltd v Restawhile Upholstery (Lancs) Ltd [1976] AC 64 at 94.

158. Ibid, at 78.

159. Ibid, at 97.

160. Ibid, at 95.

161. Ibid, at 97.

162. Laddie et al, above n 146, p 198.

163. Ibid, p 78.

164. Torremans, above n 155, p 201.

165. Laddie et al, above n 146, p 196.

166. Ibid, p 197.

167. Daniels, above n 74, at 269.

168. Waldron, J From authors to copiers: individual rights and social values in intellectual property’ (1993) 68 Chi-Kent LR 841 at 846Google Scholar.

169. Rawls, above n 53, p 201.

170. Ibid, p 302.

171. Daniels, above n 74, at 241.

172. Parijs, above n 77, at 215.

173. Ibid, at 215.

174. Sawkins v Hyperion [2005] 1 WLR 3281 at 3288.

175. Bleistein v Donaldson Lithographing Co (1903) 188 US 239 at 251.