Copyright Article

Worth a Thousand Words: The Images of Copyright

Vol. 125 No. 3 Copyright starts with the written word as its model, then tries to fit everything else into the literary mode. It oscillates between two positions on nontextual creative works such as images – either they are transparent, or they are opaque. When courts treat images as transparent, they deny that interpretation is necessary, claiming both that the meaning of the image is so obvious that it admits of no serious debate and that the image is a mere representation of reality. When they treat images as opaque, they deny that interpretation is possible, pretending that images are so far from being susceptible to discussion and analysis using words that there is no point in trying. The oscillation between opacity and transparency has been the source of much bad law. This Article explores the ungovernability of images in copyright, beginning with an overview of the power of images in the law more generally. The Article then turns to persistent difficulties in assessing copyrightability and infringement for visual works.