An Impertinent Critique of Polk Wagner

by on April 16, 2010 · 0 comments

Over at Convergences I consider the writings of Polk Wagner, beginning thus:

Polk Wagner has written some worthwhile papers on law and technology. I heartily recommend those that support points on which we agree, such as The Perfect Storm: Intellectual Property and Public Values, 73 Fordham L. Rev. 1107. 2005. This paper notes how the de facto balance between copyright and fair use has shifted over the years, and that in key respects copyright has lost, not gained, ground, and also noting that fair use is far from being the only key conceptual or practical limit on copyright.

But his paper “On Software Regulation,” is a bit muddled.  It may not be Professor Wagner’s fault, for the article was written following up on the “code is law” meme, which is at bottom a rather unhelpful observation. If “code is law” then so is everything else—the laws of physics, architecture, road design, engineering, biology, the laws of physics, religion, education, insect swarming patterns, families, and so on. All of these things affect human behavior and shape and regularize society. My complaint with “code is law” is not that is not true, in a sense—but that it is very unhelpful in understanding any real problem. Many institutions and systems affect human behavior, but they do so in different ways. It is understanding the differences that will be the key to resolving any serious human problems.

Consistent with this, Professor Wagner begins by noting that “code is law” tells us nothing about how code and law relate. But he restates the view that software code constitutes regulation. Software “regulates” in the sense that it makes human conduct more regular and affects the public. But is it really much like “regulation” enacted through a legal process by Congress or the FCC, or even like law described by courts? Certainly not. But the paper’s description of the differences is oddly incomplete.

For the remainder, visit Convergences here.

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