Author Autonomy and Atomism in Copyright Law

Intellectual Property and Copyright and Trademark

Article Snapshot


Molly S. Van Houweling


Virginia Law Review, Vol. 96, No. 3, 2010


This paper looks at how copyright law and licensing affect creativity and authorship.

Policy Relevance

New contract terms, organizations, and technology can help reduce the costs of creativity and innovation, which have increased because the copyrights protecting created works today are more numerous and complex than in the past.

Main Points

  • New technology has made it possible for many people to create and publish works in a way that only better-funded firms could before.

  • Copyright law has become broader and stronger in past decades, just as private property law was once changed to enclose common land.

  • More people hold copyrights than ever before, more works are subject to copyright ownership, and the arrangements under which rights are distributed are more complex. Ownership of rights is fragmented, resulting in “copyright atomism.”

  • Some suggest that when property rights are numerous and fragmented in this way, it raises the costs of trading and negotiating the rights, hampering creativity.
    • Abandoning the requirement that copyrights be registered means that it can be very hard to identify the owner of a copyright.

  • Technology can help ameliorate the consequences of atomism, by making information about copyright ownership more widely available.

  • New licenses like the General Public License (GPL) enable many individuals to cooperate in creating software products without consolidating into dominant firms.

  • New organizations like the Copyright Clearance Center can help coordinate copyright licensing without controlling every aspect of it.

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