Provocateur copyrights a Magic: The Gathering Deck

Come for the compilation copyright, stay for the free IP Law Casebook.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readAug 14, 2021


Copyright does not protect the fruits of your hard work. It just doesn’t. No matter what you’ve heard, the legal basis for copyright — in US law and in international treaties — is to protect creativity, not effort.

If you labor for five years to create a faithful catalog of all the houses in a city or all the books in a library, with the goal of creating as faithful, logical and linear resource as possible, copyright holds no protection for you.

On the other hand, if you dash off a haiku in five seconds, copyright will reward you with the exclusive right to reproduce, display and adapt your work, for your entire lifetime and 70 years beyond.

Copyright rewards creativity, not effort.

But there’s a weird exception to this rule: a “thin” copyright for “compilations.” Create a catalog of just the good books in a library or just the nice houses in a city and the law will extend you some copyright over this, meant to reflect the subjectivity of your judgments.

If this sounds like a “standard” with some very fuzzy edges, that’s because it is.

Enter Robert Hovden, a physics prof with a history of provocative copyright projects that highlight some of the internal contradictions and bizarre results of copyright’s applications.

Back in 2014, Hovden created a controversy by reproducing MC Escher etchings at nanoscale on silver discs, which he sold to collectors. The Escher estate — notoriously litigious copyright extremists — took the bait and threatened a suit.

“The size of the (unauthorised) reproduction is irrelevant… What actually does amaze me, is the fact that you write that it is an artist who produces these small works. An artist should realise whether something is original, or just ordinary thievery.”

You really couldn’t ask for a better (worse) response — from a licensing manager’s blanket statements about “originality” that are clearly (perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the…



Cory Doctorow

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