Existential copyright and professional photography

Jessica Silbey, Eva E. Subotnik, Peter DiCola

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Intellectual property law has intended benefits, but it also carries certain costs-deliberately so. Skeptics have asked: Why should intellectual property law exist at all? To get traction on that overly broad but still important inquiry, we decided to ask a new, preliminary question: What do creators in a particular industry actually use intellectual property for? In this first-ofits-kind study, we conducted thirty-two in-depth qualitative interviews of photographers about how copyright law functions within their creative and business practices. By learning the actual functions of copyright law on the ground, we can evaluate and contextualize existing theories of intellectual property. More importantly, our data call for an expansion of the set of possible justifications for intellectual property. Contrary to accepted wisdom, we find that copyright provides photographers with economic leverage in up-front negotiations with clients but not much benefit in anticopying protection afterwards. Beyond that, copyright also serves as part of photographers' multifaceted sense of professionalism to protect the integrity of their art and business. Identifying these unrecognized and surprising functions of copyright in creators' accounts is separate from evaluating their desirability. But we argue that the real-world functions of copyright are better candidates for justification and better subjects for policy discussion than chalkboard theories. In this way, our study of photographers moves the longstanding debate over intellectual property law's purpose to a new and more informed place.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)263-326
Number of pages64
JournalNotre Dame Law Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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