Boston University School of Law


The Concept of "Harm" in Copyright

Wendy J. Gordon
Boston University School of Law

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND THE COMMON LAW (Cambridge University Press, Shyamkrishna Balganesh, ed., forthcoming 2013)
Boston University School of Law Paper No. 13-28 (June 25, 2013)

This essay examines the tort of copyright infringement. It argues that the ideas of "harm" and "fault" already play a role in the tort’s functioning, and that an ideally reformulated version of the tort should perhaps give a more significant role to “harm.” The essay therefore examines what “harm” can or should mean, reviewing four candidates for cognizable harm in copyright law (rivalry-based losses, foregone fees, loss of exclusivity, and subjective distress) and canvassing three philosophical conceptions of “harm” (counterfactual, historical-worsening, and noncomparative). The essay identifies the appropriateness vel non of employing, in the copyright context, each harm-candidate and each variant conception. While the essay argues that there remain many issues that need to be resolved before making “harm” a formal pre-requisite for liability in copyright, the essay takes steps toward resolving some of the open issues.

Keywords: copyright infringement, trespass compared with copyright, tort theory, incentives, harm, benefits, restitution, losses, foregone license fees, fair use, copyright prima facie case, counterfactual, historical-worsening, noncomparative

JEL Classification: K13

Accepted Paper Series


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Contact Information

Wendy J. Gordon
Boston University School of Law
765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-353-4420 (Phone)
617-353-3077 (Fax)