As used today, the term “equity” connotes a variety of related, but nonetheless distinct, ideas. In most contexts, equity refers to the body of rules and doctrines that emerged in parallel with the common law, and which merged with the common law by the late nineteenth century. At a purely conceptual level, some trace the term back to Aristotle’s notion of epieikeia, or the process of infusing the law with sufficient flexibility to avoid injustice. Lastly, at a largely practical level, a few treat equity as synonymous with a set of remedies that courts can authorize, all of which are characterized by being “extraordinary” and “discretionary” in form and substance.
While equity is often understood as either a repository of substantive rules and doctrines, or, more generally, as a parallel court system that developed in seventeenth and eighteenth century England with its own set of procedural rules and uniquely discretionary remedies, this understanding is incomplete in one important respect. Equity also represents a distinctive approach to legal reasoning within a primarily statute‐centric area of law, involving an increased role for courts in the lawmaking process and a ready recourse to a set of ethical principles that are presumed to be normatively superior to the strict letter of the law. In the traditional common law this use of equity came to be known as the process of “equitable interpretation” or as determining the “equity of the statute.” Used in this conception, it authorized courts to extend or restrict the otherwise clear words of a statute to give effect to the statute’s “ratio or purpose.”
In this Article, we argue that equity, understood in this sense, is deeply influential in the construction and operationalization of copyright doctrine. While copyright law is obviously statutory in origin, the influence of equity on its working is best seen in relation to the role that the federal courts—primarily the U.S. Supreme Court—have had on its shape and direction. In a variety of doctrinal areas, the Supreme Court’s copyright jurisprudence reveals a distinct pattern of curbing behavior that, while in strict compliance with the letter of the law, is inconsistent with the values and purposes of the copyright system. The Supreme Court’s efforts to align the text of the statute’s directives with its perceived goals thus partakes of what the common law characterized as the process of giving effect to the equity of the statute. While premised on the notion of gap filling, the process was routinely directed at curtailing opportunistic behavior on the part of litigants who sought to take advantage of the statute’s literal terms, while violating the unstated normative goals of the legislation. A careful examination of Supreme Court decisions on core copyright issues over the last few decades reveals the profound role that the equity of the statute has had on the content of copyright doctrine. In addition, it sheds light on the real and all too often overlooked role that courts play in the creation and construction of both copyright doctrine and the copyright system’s underlying goals and values.