For the creators of artistic and literary works—whether photographers, writers, musicians, or filmmakers—the digital revolution is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, the internet provides nearly unlimited exposure for their work. On the other hand, copyrighted material can be downloaded for the cost of an internet connection.

According to Paul Goldstein, the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law, traditional copyright culture normally would require the user to negotiate a license each time he downloads a protected work. “But if you superimpose this system on the internet,” he explains, “it will grind to a halt—as will investment and innovation.”

To address this issue, Goldstein says, courts for the past 10 years have favored creating more “fair use” exceptions to copyright protections, thus avoiding the transaction costs of licensing altogether.

But Goldstein had a better idea. For the last three years, he has overseen a partnership between SLS and the United States Copyright Office to protect copyright owners while allowing the flow of information to remain relatively unfettered. Through the Copyright Licensing practicum, which is led by Goldstein and Luciana Herman, lecturer in law, law students along with business and computer science students focused on one type of copyrighted work and created a prototype for licensing photographs—using the internet itself to solve the problem.

“It’s an elegant solution,” Goldstein says. “Before a photographer puts an image on the web, she answers five questions. The licensing information then gets embedded in the photo. So long as internet service providers leave the information intact, as they are required to do by law, when a user clicks on the photo, he is told how much it costs to download it and is then directed to a payment processor.”

Amit Itai, JD ’17, who participated in the practicum as a second-year student and will serve as the teaching assistant this year, particularly appreciated the variety of experience: “In addition to enriching discussions with people from the industry, including photographers and software engineers, we had to distill legal principles and apply them to real problems. The need to think systemically on how a platform would operate, rather than applying legal rules to a single case, was engaging and rewarding and very much in line with Stanford’s entrepreneurial spirit.”

The prototype is about to be delivered to the Copyright Office and, if successful, could be applied to other intellectual property as well. The practicum, meanwhile, is on to its next project: For 2016-17, the Copyright Office has asked the practicum team to prepare a draft Notice of Inquiry to govern the office’s registration of claims to copyright in computer programs. The issue has a prominent place on the office’s current policy agenda. Important as registration is for legal and business purposes, it is under used by software producers and, through surveys of this community, the practicum hopes to design procedures that will better fit industry needs.