Fairness breeds complexity?

The title of this post is an axiom I learned in law school, drilled into us by a professor of tax law but made into an interrogative here.  Because the copyright law is often compared to the tax code these days, I have usually just accepted the complexity of the former, as with the latter, as a function of its attempt to be fair.  Because different situations and needs have to be addressed differently in order to be fair, laws that seek fairness inevitably (?) grow complex. But a recent blog post by Canadian copyright law professor Michael Geist, nicely articulating four principles for a copyright law that is built to last, has made me ask myself if simplicity is a plausible goal for a comprehensive copyright law.

Geist’s four principles are hard to argue with.  A copyright law that can last in today’s environment must, he says, be balanced, technologically neutral, simple & clear, and flexible.  That last point, flexibility, is the real key, since designing a law that can be adapted to new uses and new technologies, many of which are literally unforeseeable, requires that the focus be on first principles rather than outcomes.  This is different than the tax code, and it may provide the path to combining fairness with simplicity.

The principle of flexibility explains why fair use is an effective provision of US copyright law.  As frustrated as some of us get trying to navigate the deep and dangerous waters of fair use, it has allowed US law to adapt to new situations and technologies without great stresses.  In fact, Geist’s brief comment on fair dealing in Canadian law suggests (implicitly) that it should be more like US fair use; he argues that the catalog of fair dealing exceptions should be made “illustrative rather than exhaustive,” so courts would be free to build on it as technologies change.

In recent posts I have spoken of adapting fair use so that it gives more leeway to academic works than to other, more commercial intellectual properties.  Even though Geist is explicit in his post that “Flexibility takes a general purpose law and ensures that it works for stakeholders across the spectrum, whether documentary filmmakers, musicians, teachers, researchers , businesses, or consumers,” I do not think there is any contradiction here with asking that academic works be treated differently in the fair use analysis then a recently released movie, for example, might be.  Fair use would be applied in the same way to each, but because fair use appeals to the motivating principles of copyright law, it asks us to examine the circumstances of each type of material and each kind of use and measure them against those principles.  This is precisely how flexibility is accomplished, and I argue that the result of this uniform application of principles will be different outcomes for different types of works.

Geist’s approach to digital locks — DRM systems — is quite similar, asking us to look at first principles that underpin copyright law when deciding how to treat any particular technology.  Specifically, he suggests that forbidding or permitting the circumvention of such digital locks must be tied to the intended use for which the lock is “picked” if copyright balance is to be respected.  An added advantage of this approach is that it is much simpler — another core principle — than the current approach in the US, where categorical rules are enacted and then a series of complex exceptions are articulated every three years.  We will see shortly how that process will play out for the next three years, since the exceptions will be announce in a couple of months, but it is inevitable that the result will be unfair to some stakeholders and probably disappointing to all.  Far better that we heed Geist’s call for an approach based on first principles.  Perhaps Canada, as it considers a comprehensive overhaul of copyright law, can lead the way.