Unbundling the “Tort” of Copyright Infringement

Article — Volume 102, Issue 8

102 Va. L. Rev. 1833
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Judges and jurists orthodoxly view copyright infringement as a singular legal wrong, a.k.a. the tort of copyright infringement. In recent years, commentators have expressed mounting concern about the judicial test for this tort. Courts have no unified method for determining whether two works are substantially similar. The fair use doctrine is so unpredictable that some find it nothing more than the “right to hire a lawyer.” And while some judges treat infringement as a property tort, like trespass or conversion, others think of it as an economic tort, like unfair competition. Scholars therefore find the test for infringement—copyright’s “infringement analysis”—to be inconsistent and incoherent.

This Article provides a revised positive theory of copyright that clarifies the infringement test. The Article argues that copyright infringement is not one singular tort, but a group of torts. Using an analytic jurisprudential method, the Article “unbundles” infringement into five “copy-torts”: consumer copying, competitor copying, expressive privacy invasion, artistic reputation injury, and breach of creative control. Because copyright infringement is not one tort there cannot be one single infringement test. Instead, copyright’s basic infringement analysis mutates doctrinally and theoretically to provide a unique legal test for each of the copy-torts. The variation in the infringement analysis is not necessarily inconsistent or incoherent, but enables courts to test for the different copy-torts. Understanding the different copy-torts will therefore make the infringement analysis more predictable. Not only will practitioners better foresee how courts will apply the test to their cases, judges are also provided with a guide to applying the correct legal standards in infringement actions. To make the analysis even more predictable, the Article proposes a method of adjudicating hard cases that will help courts conceptually separate the copy-torts, thus ensuring they apply the correct legal tests in the future.

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  Volume 102 / Issue 8  

Unbundling the “Tort” of Copyright Infringement

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102 Va. L. Rev. 1833

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