Promises and Limits of a Law and Economics Approach to IPR in Cyberage


Over the past few weeks, our graduate students at the Univ. of St. Gallen have done quite some heavy lifting in the three courses that I described here. In my own course on law and economics of intellectual property rights in the digital age, we’ve completed the second part of the course, which consisted of three modules dealing with digital copyright, software and biz methods patents, and trademarks/domain name disputes. We were very fortunate to have the support of three wonderful guest lecturers. Professor John Palfrey taught a terrific class on digital media law and policy (find here his debriefing and putting-into-context). Klaus Schubert, partner with WilmerHale, provided an excellent overview of the current state of software patenting in and across the EU, in the U.S., and Japan and made us think about the hard policy questions up for discussion. Last week, Professor Philippe Gillieron from the Univ. of Lausanne discussed with us the legal and economic aspects of domain name disputes and ways to solve them (the focus was on UDRP – in my view a particularly interesting topic when analyzed through the lens of new institutional economics theory, see also here for variations on this theme.)

In the last session before “flyout” week, Silke Ernst and I had a first cut at a synthesis aimed at tying together several of the core themes we’ve been discussing so far. At the core of the session was the question as to what extent the law & economics approach can help us to deal with the complex IPR-questions that are triggered while transitioning from an analog/offline to a digital/online information environment. The students contributed to the session by presenting their views on the promises of and limits on a law & economics approach to IPR in the digital age. Using the time while traveling from Oxford back to Zurich, my recollection of the in-class discussion looks as follows (alternative interpretations, of course, encouraged and welcome) – starting with the argument that the law & economics approach to IPR serves at least two functions:

  • On the one hand, it provides a toolset that helps us to frame, analyze, and evaluate some of the complex phenomena we observe in cyberspace (such as, for instance, large-scale file-sharing over P2P networks or the user-created content), and enables us to gain a better understanding of the interaction among existing rules and norms and these phenomena. We might want to call it the “analytical function” of law & economics (this aspect gets close to – but is in my view not exactly identical with – what has traditionally been described as the “positive” strand of discussion in law & economics.)
  • On the other hand, law & economics may guide us at the design level (again, this gets close to what has been termed “normative” law & economics. For reasons I don’t want to discuss here, I don’t want to work with this distinction in the present context.). First, it can help us to identify the need for law reform by showing that the existing rules have a negative impact on social welfare. Here, the design function intersects with the previously mentioned analytical function. Second, law & economics provides a consistent framework to evaluate the impact of alternative means of regulation on the (economic) behavior of individuals and compare costs and benefits of different approaches aimed at solving a particular problem.

At a more granular level, we might identify the following promises and limitations of a law & economics approach with regard to the respective functionality:
Analytical function

  • Promises: coherent framework, consistent and shared set of criteria, rational and quasi-objective analysis, …
  • Limitations: Bounded rationality/areas of non-rationale behavior, lack of transparency regarding underlying causalities, limited possibilities to quantify phenomena, lack of empirical data, …

Design function:

  • Promises: Cost-benefits analysis of alternative policy choices, taking into account perspectives of different actors in an ecosystem, at least ideal-type predictions based on models, …
  • Limitations: Complexity of real-life situations, non-economic perspectives, motives, and effects, non-economic values, …

We reached some sort of consensus that the law & economics approach indeed provides a great toolset to analyze at least some of the trickiest IPR-related policy questions in cyberspace. However, the large majority seemed also to agree that some of the limitations of such an analysis become particularly visible in the digitally networked environment with phenomena such as commons-based peer production of content based on intrinsic motivations. Most of us also agreed that it would be dangerous to attempt to answer the IPR policy questions only against the backdrop of law & economics theory. Indeed, many of the decisions to be made in this space ultimately include choices about core values of our society that do not easily translate into the frameworks of law & economics, like for example informational justice, equal access, participatory culture, or semiotic democracy.

I’m very much looking forward to continuing the discussion about the role of law and economics in the digital age with my colleagues, the teaching team, and – most importantly – with the wonderful group of students enrolled in this seminar.

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    February 6, 2016 @ 1:08 pm


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    Law and Information » Blog Archive » Promises and Limits of a Law and Economics Approach to IPR in Cyberage

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