Patry's How to Fix Copyright: deftly argued, incandescent book on the evidence-free state of copyright law

William Patry is no copyright radical. He's the author of some of the major reference texts on copyright, books that most copyright lawyers would have on their bookcases, books like Patry on Copyright. But Patry -- once copyright counsel to the US House of Representatives and policy planning advisor to the US Register of Copyrights -- is furious with the current state of copyright law, and he's marshalled his considerable knowledge of copyright and combined it with his considerable talent as a writer to produce a new book, How to Fix Copyright, a book that is incandescent in every sense of the word.

How to Fix Copyright is a superbly argued, enraging book on the state of copyright law today, one of the great evidence-free zones in policymaking, where every measure is taken on faith and whose results are never seriously measured (except by tame, partisan researchers who always conclude that more draconian laws are in order). Patry dismantles the arguments for "strong" copyright protection like a top chef deboning a fish, deftly carving away the industry rhetoric and leaving behind the evidence.

The evidence is grim. Bad copyright law, enacted on the basis of flimsy, cooked statistics (or worse, purely anaecdotal "evidence") is not serving to enrich artists, though it is funneling enormous wealth to their corporate publishers, studios and labels (especially the executive suites in those firms, where compensation in the tens of millions is handed out by firms that are "dying of piracy"). These laws are dismantling our culture, criminalizing our children and neighbors, attacking our cherished institutions, and distorting the progress of poor nations around the world.

Throughout the text, Patry offers two important (but rare) commodities: facts, and solutions. Patry's work is heavily footnoted, and his footnotes are generous, sometimes lengthy discursions, often citing primary, peer-reviewed works. Not cooked industry statistics, but impartial evidence from economists, social scientists, and creators modern and ancient. As to solutions, Patry notes that his publisher wanted him to include a list of bullet-point solutions at the end of the book, an approach he rejected because these aren't simple problems -- they're difficult and nuanced, and so are his solutions, so they're best couched in the arguments they refer to. I agree with this approach, though two of Patry's suggestions are simple enough: first, stop making new copyright laws until we know whether the current ones are working (we'll have to define what they're supposed to be doing first!); and second, make no new laws without a strong, impartial evidentiary basis.

Funnily enough, these two suggestions do mark Patry out as a copyright radical by modern standards. Copyright is supposed to be an unassailable doctrine of faith, and asking to see the evidence of supposed gigantic monetary and job losses due to piracy, or supposed gigantic contributions to the GDP and balance of trade as a result of the industries, makes you a loony heretic in the contemporary debate.

Patry currently works as Senior Copyright Counsel at Google, and he is also a clarinetist -- in other words, he is both well-versed in technology and an artist himself. This puts him in a nearly unique position among copyright lawyers, and it's no wonder that he's one of copyright's best scholars. And while How to Fix Copyright is a book full of anger, it's never shrill or strident (though it's a good deal less calm than Patry's previous popular law book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars).

How to Fix Copyright


  1. “first, stop making new copyright laws until we know whether the current ones are working (we’ll have to define what they’re supposed to be doing first!); and second, make no new laws without a strong, impartial evidentiary basis.”

    That’s reasonable enough to go undiscussed in the current political climate.

  2. But … was there ever any copyright law formed or enacted on the basis of evidence? Evidence either to the idea that copyright was needed to ensure new creative work, after 50,000 years of creative work without copyright — or to the idea thar X term of years, or life of artist, or foreverer, would be the best term of protection to maximize such creations?

    Has copyright law ever been anything more than the successful lobbying of a minority (mostly of publishers) seeking special monopoly rights to enhance and help guarantee their profits, at the expense of the general public?

  3. Look, the issue isn’t that reasonable people can see that copyright is broken and needs fixing (or my favorite solution, get rid of it altogether).

    The issue is that unreasonable people get to determine copyright policy.

    The mechanism by which this happens is very simple and nesfarious.
    * the RIAA and MPAA lobby politicians
    * politicians enact ever more insane laws at their bidding
    * the WTO and WIPO are then used by government to peddle the insanity internationally

    And even if those pushes by the corrupt and the greedy fail (like it failed in iceland) on the opposition of the people. The lobbies don’t give up. The very same or worse revision of copyright will be again on the agenda of government no more then 6 to 12 months after the last one failed.

    The content industry is conspiring internationally to push their interests disregarding any notion of democracy.

    No matter how many well reasoned books you write, you will never ever convince the likes of Sony, Universal, BMI or Warner. And as long as they are around and their armies of pet politicians and proxy right organizations, there will never be any more reasonable copyright.

    Unless we get up to make some very radical changes to the way we handle Imaginary Property and our political process, copyright *will* get worse and worse, because unreasonable, greedy and corrupt people make it.

    Evidence based copyright policy making is a really nice idea. But where is the evidence that our governments are remotely able to make policy after evidence? We’ve been mulling this ever worsening spiral of insane IP laws for a while now (decades if not centuries) and contrary to any amount of debate, it got progressively worse.

  4. Copyright holders no longer respect people and their contract with society. Is it any wonder that people no longer respect copyright. As was said at Woodstock: The fences are down, it’s a free concert now. Copyright rewrites have jumped the shark.

    1. like Iran? i believe some other arab countries are also very lax on copyright (even in governmental bodies) so everything gets copied (mainly relevant in terms of software). the result is a striving creative and commercial output. granted no major sofware developments have come out of iran as of yet but this trend should show in few years to come.

  5. Ha ha ha, looking around for an ebook version of this book all I can find are DRM’d versions on B&N and Amazon. Neither of which are compatible with my Kobo. The book is reasonably priced and I’d love to support Patry, but his book is legally inaccessable to me as an ebook. I either need to find a pirate site which has it, or buy from one of the above vendors and strip the DRM.

    Oh the irony!

    Sorry William, If I do buy your book I’m going to end up sharing it to make up for the aggravation it causes me and to help my friends avoid the same unnecessary aggravation.

  6. I have transfered Cory’s words to Amazon as a review of the book, with full credit (gosh, I hope I’m not violating a copyright!)  

    1. yes you did (violate copyright). But don’t fret about it, you’ve probably violated copyright all day long from the moment you opened your eyes to the moment you stop using any tech gadget in the evening. In fact in a literal interpretation of copyright you incur daily dammages in the order of about 200’000$/day, and since there’s 365 days in a year and 7 billion people on the planet, I believe we’ll be hearing soon that the MAFIAA has lost $511 quadrillion this year.

    2. No, you didn’t violate copyright; if you read the license in the footer, the Boing Boing post “is licensed under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution.” Unless posting it in the Amazon review is considered commercial sharing (ah, nuance…).

  7. -The majority of profits should go to the works’ creator(s).
    -All profits involving lawsuits for copyright infringement should go to the other and his/her lawyer(s).
    -Corporations are not to take advantage of artists because of age, race, or sexual orientation.
    -Violation shall be tried as a federal crime of the highest degree, and punishable by up to 20 years in Federal Prison. As well as a minimum fee of $5000.00. Any person(s) unable to pay the fees shall be given an extra year in Federal Prison, without paroll.

    1. Ah see, now that’s the funny thing. The MAFIAA is known to do some “creative accounting”, where the lawsuit is always more expensive then the damages they got paid, therefore there is never anything to pay authors.

      In all fairness, it most likely is almost always costing more money to prosecute schoolchildren and grannies then you can squeeze out of them. But I’m pretty sure that in that heap of unprofitable hide some gems of genuine profit they managed to creatively dissapeard to avoid having to pay artists any money.

  8. These are all very good, rational and valid points.  But do you think that the parasites in Washington care about the best public interests, or about lining their own pockets?  Corruption is always about Self interest first, and to hell with everyone else.

  9. Thanks so Cory for the wonderful review. As we discussed, when other people review something you wrote, it is sometimes surprising to see how their perception of you differs from your self-perception. I wouldn’t describe myself as furious and I deliberately set out to make this book much calmer, by-the-facts than Moral Panics. Moral Panics was about the use of language on thought, so I too used language that way as a form of illustration. How to Fix Copyright is meant to be about evidence and facts, and so I tried to strip colorful language out and present the reader with arguments based on how evidence and facts are either missing in the debates on copyright or are distorted. Being furious or more passionate than Moral Panics would have defeated my purpose. That doesn’t mean necessarily that I did  accomplish my purpose, but I wanted to let others know at least what I was trying to do.Others, like you, are of course the real judges of that, not me. 

  10. Thanks Mr. Patry for your participation in this form. I’ve always been a big fan of yours. I have Moral Panics and used to read your blog regularly before you retired it. I have a Kobo now for most of my books, and would love to buy yours. Is there any way I can do that or will I be forced to look for a pirated copy? Just wondering.

    It’s pretty bad when no legitimate ways of acquiring works exist, and you end up pirating material you would have gladly paid money for had the publishers actually given you the opportunity to do so.

  11. Hi Darryl. I agree with you completely and make the same point in the book. I will contact Oxford and see if they support Kobo; they should. Email me so we can follow up: (Yes, Google employees can have personal email accounts on any service they want. My Yahoo account predates my joining Google, and its fine with Google for me to continue it).

  12. No irony Darryl, the book is to be available on Kobo. Here is my publisher’s response on the issue:  “The answer is yes the book will be available on Kobo, although I do not yet see it up on their site. We provided all of our ebook accounts with the electronic files on 11/28. It takes varying amounts of time for the different accounts to “ingest” the ebook and begin to display it for sale.”

  13. Of course the copyright system is messed up, the people that have the money and power to influence it are the ones with the copyrights to protect so it’s going to be biased to their benefit. On an unrelated note check out some people who got way too tan.

  14. There are a lot of great points in William Patry’s book. As one of the very few people who is not afraid to dig deep to the foundational question that is “Why do we have copyright laws at all”, he has my profound respect. William Patry aptly throws light on numerous myths behind today’s popular rationalization on copyright that it is believed to balance the welfare of the originators with the interests of the society. 

    The big predicament his book is that it is founded on incorrect suppositions and as a result it concludes with awfully risky proposals. He deems that copyright laws are not about giving originators the right to c how their works are utilized. Patry believes that the function of copyright laws is to guarantee the maximum benefits to the public while giving the creators the least minimum that would promote creativity. 

    In my critique, How Not To Fix Copyright – My Response to William Patry , I talk about the errors in Patry’s approach and give a lot of detailed commentaries to extracts from his book.

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