Is Copyright Property? -- The Debate in Jewish Law

Neil W. Netanel, David Nimmer


Is copyright a property right? Common law and civil law jurists have debated that issue for over three centuries. It remains at the heart of battles over copyright’s scope and duration today, even if its import lies principally in the rhetorical force of labeling a right as "property," not in any doctrinal consequence flowing directly from that label. In parallel to their common law and civil law counterparts, presentday rabbinic jurists engage in lively debate about whether Jewish law recognizes copyright as a property right. And, as in secular law but for different reasons, that issue has significant repercussions in Jewish law. As discussed in rabbinic court decisions and writings, whether Jewish law accords authors a right of ownership in their works impacts such issues as whether it is permissible, without license from the author or publisher, to copy and distribute software and sound recordings, perform music in wedding halls, make copies for private and classroom use, and download songs from the Internet. There are numerous, and at times profound, differences in the terminology, form of argument, doctrinal specifics, and overarching legal framework of Jewish and secular law. Nonetheless, the arguments within the Jewish law debate have some intriguing parallels with those of secular copyright law. In fact, one finds the direct, if largely unstated, influence of secular copyright just below the surface in the debate in Jewish law about whether copyright is property.

Full Text: