User's Rights and the Public Domain

In recent years the concept of “user’s rights” has gained considerable currency in discussions of the limits of intellectual property in general, and of copyright in particular. Those arguing in favour of the public domain and increased limitations on copyright have increasingly sought to fight fire with fire – to place substantive user’s rights against the claims of intellectual property. User’s rights have in some jurisdictions received explicit Supreme Court imprimatur and they are expressly recognised in key charters of human rights. Yet there is a residual uncertainty about the appropriateness of this language. Is it correct, as a general conceptual and normative matter, to speak of the broad liberties citizens have regarding access to ideas and information as rights? The few treatments dealing directly with this question have argued – often from a Hohfeldian footing – that ascriptions of user’s rights are inappropriate. Even commentators largely sympathetic to the public domain have found themselves drawn to this conclusion. In this paper, I vindicate the general applicability of rights language by arguing these deflationary accounts are mistaken – and are mistaken even in terms of the theories of rights they themselves deploy.
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