Published Version Available Here
Tenure has its privileges.
Three years ago, I posted on this site that I had spent the year prior working up a lengthy, dense draft of a deeply theoretical piece that had grown out of my noodling over a relatively small doctrinal question in trademark law. This draft was well outside of my usual wheelhouse: technical, philosophical, and abstract. It marked the beginning of what has now become a sharp pivot in my scholarly career, into more self-consciously philosophical investigations of the rules we impose on the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
Initially journals reacted coolly–which I can’t fault them for; the piece is long by law review standards and the framework is more technical and less accessible than standard law review fare. I took some time to get feedback from more accomplished legal theorists than myself, I revised the draft, and ultimately it found a home at the Cardozo Law Review, whose student editors worked hard to improve the piece and have now published Legal Sets in their June 2019 issue (which includes a number of other interesting pieces). All told, that means this project took four years to move from the question that first got me working on it to a final, published article. I am deeply cognizant of the tremendous privilege I enjoy in being able to earn a living by dedicating such a significant chunk of my life to this type of work, and I hope I’m making good on that privilege.
This is the kind of work–and the kind of departure from familiar subjects and methods–that I never would have attempted pre-tenure. The risk of failure was great; the opportunity costs were high, and the need to produce measurable outputs to get me through the next gate on my career path was too pressing. But you know, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I think this article is pretty good, and despite its theoretical cast I think it makes a real contribution to a sounder understanding of how law works in practice. So I come away from the experience of writing this piece with a renewed gratitude for the privilege of academic freedom and job security, and a renewed sense that the general absence of such freedom and security from our economy (outside of the shrinking rarefied precincts of the tenure-track academy) is almost surely holding our society back from its full potential.
In researching my in-progress monograph on value pluralism in knowledge governance, I made a fascinating discovery about the history of ideas of American intellectual property law. That discovery is now the basis of an article-length project, which I am presenting today at the annual Intellectual Property Scholars Conference, hosted this year at UC Berkeley. The long title is “Jefferson’s Taper and Cicero’s Lumen: A Genealogy of Intellectual Property’s Distributive Ethos,” but I’ve taken to referring to it by the shorthand “Jefferson’s Taper.” Here’s the abstract:
This Article reports a new discovery concerning the intellectual genealogy of one of American intellectual property law’s most important texts. The text is Thomas Jefferson’s 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the absence of a natural right to property in inventions, metaphorically illustrated by a “taper” that spreads light from one person to another without diminishing the light at its source. I demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson directly copied this Parable of the Taper from a nearly identical parable in Cicero’s De Officiis, and I show how this borrowing situates Jefferson’s thoughts on intellectual property firmly within a natural law tradition that others have cited as inconsistent with Jefferson’s views. I further demonstrate how that natural law tradition rests on a classical, pre-Enlightenment notion of distributive justice in which distribution of resources is a matter of private beneficence guided by a principle of proportionality to the merit of the recipient. I then review the ways that notion differs from the modern, post-Enlightenment notion of distributive justice as a collective social obligation that proceeds from an initial assumption of human equality. Jefferson’s lifetime correlates with a historical pivot in the intellectual history of the West from the classical notion to the modern notion, and I argue that his invocation and interpretation of the Parable of the Taper reflect this mixing of traditions. Finally, I discuss the implications of both theories of distributive justice for the law and policy of knowledge governance—including but not limited to intellectual property law—and propose that the debate between classical and modern distributivists is more central to policy design than the familiar debate between utilitarians and Lockeans.
Slides for the presentation are available here.
I’m very pleased to announce that the book project I have been plodding away at for over two years is now under contract with Cambridge University Press. Its working title is Valuing Progress: A Pluralist Approach to Knowledge Governance. Keep an eye out for it in late 2018, and tell your librarian to do likewise!
Bits and pieces of Valuing Progress have appeared on this blog and elsewhere as it has developed from a half-baked essay into a monograph-sized project:
- I presented my first musings about the relationship between normative commitments regarding distribution and the choice of a knowledge-governance regime as the opening plenary presentation at IPSC in Berkeley–these musings will now be more fully developed in Chapter 4 of the book: “Reciprocity.”
- My exploration of our obligations to future persons, and the implication of those obligations for our present-day knowledge-governance policies, used analogous arguments in environmental policy as an early springboard. Deeper consideration of our obligations to the future led me to Derek Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem, at first through the lens of public health policy. Because knowledge governance–like environmental stewardship and global health policy–is a cooperative social phenomenon spanning timescales greater than any single human lifetime, the problem of future persons is one any theory of knowledge governance must engage. I made my first effort to do so at the 2015 Works-In-Progress in Intellectual Property (WIPIP) Conference at the University of Washington, and presented a more recent take at NYU’s 2017 Tri-State IP Workshop. My fuller treatment of the issue will appear in Chapter 7 of Valuing Progress: “Future Persons.”
- Finally, the driving theoretical debate in IP lately has been the one between Mark Lemley, champion of consequentialism, and Rob Merges, who has lately turned from consequentialism to nonconsequentialist philosophers such as Locke and Rawls for theoretical foundations. My hot take on this debate was generative enough to justify organizing a symposium on the issue at the St. John’s Intellectual Property Law Center, where I serve as founding director. I was gratified that both Professors Lemley and Merges presented on a panel together, and that I was able to use the opportunity to more fully introduce my own thoughts on this debate. My introduction to the symposium issue of the St. John’s Law Review forms the kernel of Chapter 2 of Valuing Progress: “From Is to Ought.”
Other chapters will discuss the incommensurability of values at stake in knowledge governance, the relevance of luck and agency to our weighing of those values, the widening of our moral concern regarding the burdens and benefits of knowledge creation to encompass socially remote persons, and the role of value pluralism in shaping political institutions and ethical norms to reconcile these values when they inevitably conflict. The result, I hope, will introduce my colleagues in innovation and creativity law and policy to a wider literature in moral philosophy that bears directly on their work. In doing so, I hope to help frame the distinction between–and the appropriate domains of–empirical and normative argumentation, to point a way out of our increasingly unhelpful arguments about 18th-century philosophy, and to introduce a more nuanced set of normative concerns that engage with the messiness and imperfection of human progress.
I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped me to bring Valuing Progress to this important stage of development, including Matt Gallaway at CUP, the organizers of conferences at which I’ve had the opportunity to present early pieces of the project (particularly Peter Menell, Pam Samuelson, Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, and Rob Merges at Berkeley; Jennifer Rothman at Loyola of Los Angeles; Jeanne Fromer and Barton Beebe at NYU; Zahr Said at the University of Washington; Irina Manta at Hofstra; and Paul Gugliuzza at Boston University). I am also grateful for the support of St. John’s Law School, my dean Mike Simons, and my colleagues who have served as associate dean for faculty scholarship as this project has been in development: Marc DeGirolami and Anita Krishnakumar. Many more friends and colleagues have offered helpful feedback on early drafts and conversation about points and arguments that will find their way into the manuscript; they can all expect warm thanks in the acknowledgments section of the finished book.
But first, I have to finish writing the thing. So, back to work.
I’m very excited to announce that the Institute of Intellectual Property in Tokyo has invited me to participate in its Invited Overseas Researcher Program this coming summer. Under an agreement with the Japan Patent Office, each year IIP invites a small number of foreign researchers to come to Tokyo to study Japan’s industrial property system. (Past researchers can be found here.) I’ll be spending several weeks in Tokyo this summer doing empirical research into Japan’s trademark registration system (as a foundation for the kind of work discussed in this post). Many thanks to Kevin Collins (who did this program last year) for flagging this opportunity, and to Barton Beebe, Graeme Dinwoodie, and Jay Kesan (also a previous participant in the IIP program) for their support.