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Mahatma Gandhi is revered the world over for his views on freedom and non-violence, ideas that he deployed with great success during India’s freedom struggle. As a thinker, he is commonly believed to have been a moral perfectionist: anti-utilitarian in mindset and deeply skeptical of market mechanisms. Yet, when he engaged with the institution of copyright law during his lifetime — as a writer, editor, and publisher — his approach routinely abjured the idealism of his abstract thinking in favor of a lawyerly pragmatism. Characterized by a nuanced, internal understanding of the institution and its conflicting normative goals, Gandhi’s thinking on copyright law reveals a reasoned, contextual, and incremental transformation over time, as the economic and political circumstances surrounding his engagement with copyright changed. In it we see a dimension of Gandhi’s thinking that has thus far been ignored, emanating from his training as a common lawyer. This Essay traces the development of Gandhi’s views on copyright to show how he anticipated several of the central debates and controversies that are today the staple of the copyright wars, and developed an approach to dealing with copyright’s various problems, best described as “copyright pragmatism.” As an approach that draws on legal and philosophical pragmatism, copyright pragmatism entails a critical engagement with copyright as a legal institution on its own terms, but contextually and with an eye towards its various costs, benefits, and normative goals at each stage of engagement. The Essay then unpacks the analytical moves that copyright pragmatism entails to show how it holds important lessons for the future of copyright thinking and reform.


Gandhi, copright law, legal pragmatism

Publication Title

California Law Review

Publication Citation

California Law Review, Vol. 101, forthcoming 2013