By Graham Ballou*
A pdf version of this article may be downloaded here.
In Our Bizarre System of Copyright Infringement, Mark Lemley argues that copyright law is exactly backwards: we should allow the jury to decide whether a defendant has copied the plaintiff’s work as a factual matter, and leave the question of improper appropriation to experts.[FN1] Expert testimony on substantial similarity would, at the least, clear judicial fog at this stage of a copyright infringement analysis: courts could abandon the fiction of an objective, “ordinary observer” perspective – the controlling test for substantial similarity – and allow specialists to conduct what is in fact a highly technical analysis. But Lemley overlooks two realities of our copyright system. First, the court – not the jury – most often has the final word on substantial similarity. If a defendant loses at trial, she can seek de novo review of this issue.[FN2] Second, courts’ decisions on substantial similarity are much less technical than their elaborate rhetoric would suggest. Despite the myriad judicial tests that courts employ – from “ordinary observer” to “more discerning ordinary observer,” from “filtration” to “total concept and feel” – their decisions ultimately stampede a formal analytical framework in favor of a basic “we know it when we see it” approach.
Part I of this paper gives a brief overview of the Second Circuit’s substantial similarity doctrine. Part II examines application of this doctrine at the district court level, where summary judgment opinions from 2008 to 2010 display wide judicial latitude in the framing of the test. In Part III, I propose an alternative. Rather than allow expert testimony at this stage of an infringement analysis, copyright law should discourage summary judgment on and de novo review of substantial similarity. By empowering the jury on this inherently subjective question, courts would free themselves of what has become an unworkable doctrine.