Dotan Oliar

IP Norms’ Dark Side



The early legal literature on law and social norms tended to paint a rosy picture. Social norms were generally depicted as an optimal set of organically developed rules, informed by the experience of a close-knit community, and thus superior to formal law as a way of regulating behavior. Later scholars came to realize that nothing guarantees the optimality of social norms: they may perpetuate practices that no longer make sense, or they may advance the interests of certain groups but not social welfare. In such cases, formal law holds the promise of overriding suboptimal norms and moving society to a better place.

A few years back, I wrote, together with Christopher Sprigman, one of the first papers on social norms in intellectual property law in which we explored how standup comedians informally regulate the ownership and transfer of rights in jokes and comedic routines. While we thought that in that particular case the system of social norms largely brought good outcomes in terms of inducing creativity, that conclusion came at the end of reviewing their advantages relative to copyright law, but, importantly, also their relative disadvantages. For example, we noted aspects of the norms system that we thought were unattractive for creativity relative to formal copyright law: standups norms’ system does not recognize a term limit (so the norms’ system discourages dissemination and reuse of old materials), does not harbor a concept of fair use (so it discourages derivative and sequential creativity), and grants a scope of protection that exceeds that which is available under copyright’s idea/expression doctrine (so it discourages borrowing high level concepts and themes from others).



Dotan Oliar, IP Norms’ Dark Side (reviewing Stephanie Bair & Laura Pedraza-Farina, Anti-Innovation Norms, 112 Northwestern Law Review 1069 (2018)) JOTWELL (2018).

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