Separation of Company and Person

William Patry is the author of How to Fix Copyright. He is also the Senior Copyright Counsel at Google. However, as he clearly states in the disclaimer at the beginning of How to Fix Copyright, there is to be no relationship drawn between the two. “Google does not endorse this book . . . so please don’t preface any discussion of this book with: ‘Google’s Senior Copyright Counsel said,’ or any other variant”, reads the disclaimer.

On Patry’s blog is the same impassioned directive, “This is a personal blog, not a Google blog . . . Please don’t attribute anything in the blog or the book to Google, which employs me.” Unfortunately, the fact that this directive was much ignored coupled with “the current depressing state of copyright law” led Patry to end blogging conversation in 2008. (In the three years since, he has added a few more entries to The Patry Copyright Blog, but nothing on the frequency of the period before 2008.)

This is a difficult issue connected to authorship. On the one hand, many authors’ bios list their affiliations — their places of employment, their membership in professional societies, their seats on boards of various companies, etc. All this serves to inform the readers of the authors’ qualifications and potential biases. However, the affiliations also function to cement the authors’, well, authority. In the cases where the author works for a prestigious organization — an Ivy League university, for instance —  his home institution endows him with a mark of respect. The institution’s reputation readily blends into the author’s, enhancing his stance as a expert on the matter, and instantly brands his work with a seal of credibility. This is very important in a crowded marketplace like book publishing, where the harried consumer is faced with many choices and needs to rely on dependable signals (like an author’s reputable employer) to make her selections.

On the other hand, many authors will attach notes claiming complete independence from their places of employment. For example, research, speeches, and other writings produced by employees employed by various federal and international agencies — the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund . . . etc. — unfailingly carry some variant of the following, “The views in this paper are solely the responsibility of the authors and should not be interpreted as reflecting the views of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or of any other person associated with the Federal Reserve System.” Simultaneous with these disclaimers, however, is the realization that the research, speech-making, editorial, or whatever would not have the visibility and reach they do, except because of writer’s affiliation.

So, while we recognize that public persons — high-ranking government employees, professors at big universities, and yes, Google Copyright Counsel — are also private citizens and are entitled to have opinions unconnected to their employment, it’s really very difficult to untangle the strands that run between the public and private personas. It’s difficult* to accept the reputation- and power-enhancing perks that people’s affiliations bring them in one moment and completely ignore about them at the next as the authors request.

(*: Difficult but not impossible. If William Patry will pick up his blog again, I cross my heart & promise that I will not attribute anything he writes to Google.)

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On a somewhat related note, there’s quite a can of worms to be opened by looking into questions regarding works made for hire and who is properly the author in the fuzzy cases (like this one on copyrighted tattoos). I’m leaving that can to be opened in another discussion.

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One Response to Separation of Company and Person

  1. An additional example: William Shawcross in his book “Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” mentions in his bio that “his father, Hartley Shawcross, was Britain’s lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials”.

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