IS COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT A STRICT LIABILITY TORT?

By: Patrick R. Goold

ABSTRACT

Scholars and lawmakers routinely refer to copyright infringement as a strict liability tort.
The strictness of copyright liability has long been criticized as immoral, inefficient, and
inconsistent with usual tort doctrine. However, this Article questions whether copyright
infringement really is a strict liability tort. It advances the thesis that copyright infringement
in the United States is a fault-based tort, closely related to the tort of negligence. Using both
doctrinal and economic methods, this Article explicates the role that fault plays in copyright
infringement. Doing so not only demonstrates that copyright’s liability rule is more
normatively defensible than previously appreciated, but also provides a unique tort
perspective on the nature of the fair use doctrine. By seriously engaging with the analytic
question of whether liability for copyright infringement is strict or not, we highlight how the
fair use analysis blends and confuses two separate issues: on one hand, did the defendant
cause the plaintiff harm, and, on the other, was that harm justifiable? The Article concludes
that, while no substantive changes need to be made to copyright’s liability rule, judges ought
to restructure the fair use analysis in order to keep these concepts distinct from one another.

Full Article (PDF 2,388KB)