by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I love books.
I was lucky enough to have parents who realized it didn’t matter what I read—as long as I read. So my early literary influences were Wile E. Coyote, Uncle Scrooge, and Gyro Gearloose.1
Books have been my life. Ever since I stopped delivering caskets to mortuaries,2 I’ve made a living out of books.
I’m surrounded by them. The state provides me with an office wallpapered with them, and my favorite room in my home looks very much like the branch library where I was supposed to be the night I piled up my father’s car driving to UCI to visit my girlfriend.3
So it seems odd that I should hate copyright law.
Well, maybe not “hate.” Maybe what I feel isn’t hatred, but I don’t know what the noun form of “despise” is.
So help me, if I had my choice of handling a copyright case or working six months in the hold of a Bering Straits salmon trawler, I’d go with the trawler every time. One of the best things about my job is that I don’t have to deal with copyright law.
Little-known fact: In 1795, the state courts quitclaimed their right to adjudication of copyright cases to the feds, who were crazy enough to accept it. We even got consideration: autographed baseball cards of both Madison and Marbury. And the Marbury is a rookie card!4
I’m so glad we don’t have to do these. Like all of intellectual property law, they’re damnably difficult. Copyright law is a bucketful of black mambas from which juries are periodically asked to pick out licorice whips.
And whenever one of these cases hits the news, I follow it more closely than the box scores. I listen to the music or read the passages in the novel and draw my own conclusions about whether there’s been infringement.
Inevitably, ineluctably, unfailingly incorrectly.5
I don’t understand how I can always be wrong about these. I’ve voted infringement, I’ve voted non-infringement, I’ve voted Whig, Tory, and Tax Revolt Party of Nassau County, and I still haven’t gotten one right.
So help me, I should rent myself out to plaintiffs. “Want to know how this is going to turn out? Run it by me, the Mr. Negative Litmus of infringement decisions. If I rule in your favor, fire your lawyer, save yourself a bushel of coin, and go write something else.”
I don’t know why I should be tone deaf in this one area of the law, but I am. The whole thing is as inscrutable to me as cricket. Or crickets.
But that’s not my only gripe against copyright law. Hell, if I hated every area of the law that’s tougher than I am, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
No, copyright law has offended me on a much more personal level than merely proving my fallibility on a regular basis. After all, the California Supreme Court does that, and I don’t hate them. My goodness, I just adore them.6
Of course, they don’t make me type that little © on all my columns. This is ostensibly to keep people from stealing my words. Which, of course, is wholly fatuous.
In the first place, they aren’t my words. I use the same words everyone else does. Near as I can determine, 99% of the words I use entered the public domain at birth.
I mean, when we tell a witness to explain something in her own words, we aren’t really expecting her to dip into her own personal trove of words. “Well, he was gazornin hawthorp rooly mun with a very large wonklemorf. I maddie rep another like him in plummery redalp.”
No, we expect her to use the same words the rest of us use. Only pharmaceutical companies get to make up words.7
So the copyright laws can’t be meant to keep others from using my words.
What then? My arrangement of words? Poppycock. Malarkey. Balderdash.8 Who would want to sound like me?
I’ve been writing this column for thirty-seven years. In all that time, I have not become aware of a single human being copying anything I’ve written. There’s nobody out there conspiring to copy my arrangement of words so they can sound like me.
I once owned a car so homely and unreliable I described it as “its own anti-theft device.” A Criminal Waste of Space is its own “anti-copyright violation device.” Just as paupers are said to be “judgment proof,” I am “copyright violation proof.”
So copyright law provides me no protection and makes me look stupid every time I try to predict its outcome. Two strikes right there.
And the third-strike—the one that makes copyright law a lifer?
Every time I write this column I have to attach the aforementioned little © symbol to it. Every time. I have to put it on everything I write that doesn’t end with an apportionment of costs.
No big deal, right? Three little keystrokes. Who cares?
And everybody who has to make reference to any statutory subdivision involving the letter (c) cares. Because the demigods who devised our word processing programs have, in their algorithmic wisdom, decreed that copyright is more important than any other area of the law. So every time we try to type that (c) to describe any statutory subdivision, our word processing program turns it into a copyright symbol: ©.
We are required—those of us mere mortals not dealing with copyright when we type “open parens, c, closed parens”—to make a fourth keystroke. If we want to cite Penal Code section 1538.5 (c) or Civil Code section 56.1007 (c),9 we have to undo the copyright symbol before we can proceed.
The tyranny of copyright law requires us to hit Backspace to get what we want to say. It requires us to acknowledge our inferiority to the high priestesses of copyright law who have somehow merited priority in the eyes of the word programmers.10
Well, I for one, refuse to make that acknowledgement. I shout, “Curse you, copyright law,” every time I have to do that. Take that, high priestesses!
I retract my earlier judgment that “hate” was too strong a word. I hate copyright law.
Now I’m going to mufdub a losartan and remistaf an ambien and lie down for migdy minutes. And no one is allowed to copy that sentence.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.