The Hard Questions about Talent, Market Regulation, and the World of Work

Each in his own sharp and perceptive way, Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale and Matthew Bodie present what are probably the hardest questions that the field of human capital law must contemplate. Brett asks about a fuller alternative vision for line drawing between freedom and control. He further asks how we should strike the balance between regulatory responses and private efforts in encouraging more openness. Finally, he raises the inevitable question about the tradeoffs between nuanced, contextual standards (what, as Brett points out, I discuss as the Goldilocks problem) versus rigid absolute rules (a challenge that runs throughout IP debates and more broadly throughout law). Frank and Matt push me on the hardest problems for any politically charged debate: the distributive, including inadvertent and co-optive, effects of my vision. I am incredibly grateful to receive these hard questions even though I am sure I am yet to uncover fully satisfying responses. Brett writes that he wanted more when the book ended and yes, there will be more. For one, Brett wanted to hear more about the commons and talent pools. I have been invited to present a new paper, The New Cognitive Property in the Spring at a conference called Innovation Beyond IP at Yale and my plan is to write more about the many forms of knowledge that need to be nurtured, nourished, and set free in our markets.

Matt describes his forthcoming paper where he demonstrates that “employment” is reliant on our theory and idea of the firm: we have firms to facilitate joint production but we need to complicate our vision of what that joint production, including from a governance perspective, looks like. “Employers are people too” Matt reminds us, as he asks, “Do some of the restrictions we are talking about look less onerous if we think of employers as groups of people?” And my answer is yes, of course there is a lot of room for policy and contractual arrangements that prevent opportunism and protect investment: my arguments have never been of the anarchic flavor “let’s do away with all IP, duties of loyalty, and contractual restrictions”. Rather, as section 2 (chapters 3-8) of Talent Wants to Be Free is entitled we need to Choose Our Battles. The argument is nicely aligned with the way Peter Lee frames it: we have lots of forms of control, we have many tools, including positive tool, to create the right incentives, let us now understand how we’ve gotten out of balance, how we’ve developed an over-control mentality that uses legitimate concerns over initial investment and risks of opportunism and hold-up to allow almost any form of information and exchange to be restricted. So yes: we need certain forms of IP – we have patents, we have copyright, we have trademark. Each one of these bodies of law too needs to be examined in its scope and there is certainly some excess out there but in general: we know where we stand. But what about human capital beyond IP? And what about ownership over IP between employees and employers?

So yes, we need joint inventorship doctrines for sure when two inventors work together. But what about firm-employee doctrines? Do we need work-for-hire and hired-to-invent doctrines? Here we arrive to core questions about the differences between employment versus joint ventures or partnerships between people. And even here, the argument is that we continue to need during employment certain firm protections over ownership. But the reality is that so many highly inventive and developed countries, diverse as Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Germany, and China, all have drawn more careful lines about what can fall under “service inventions” or inventions produced within a corporation. These countries have some requirement for fair compensation of the employee, some stake in inventions, rather than a carte blanche to everything produced within the contours of the firm. The key is a continuous notion of sharing, fairness and boundaries that we’ve lost sight of. Intense line-drawing as Brett would have it that is based on context and evidence, not on an outdated version of the meaning of free markets.

What about non-competes and trade secrets? Again, my argument is that these protections alternate, they should be discussed in relation to one another, and we need to understand their logic, goals, and the cost/benefit of each given that they exist in a spectrum. Non-competes is the harshest restriction: an absolute prohibition post-employment to continue in one’s professional path outside the corporation. This is unnecessary. The empirics are there to support their absolute ban rather than the fine dance that of balancing that is needed with some of the other protections. Sure it makes life momentarily easier for those who want to use non-competes, but over time, not only can we all live without that harsh tool, we will actually benefit from ceding that chemical weapon in the battle over brains and instead employ more conventional arms. And yet, even in California, this insight doesn’t and shouldn’t extend to partnerships. The California policy against non-competes is limited to the employment context. If two people, as in Matt’s hypo, are together forming a business, their joint property rights in that business suggest to us that allowing some form of a covenant not to compete will be justified. There will still be a cost to positive externalities but the difference between the two forms of relationships allow for absolute ban in one and a standard of reasonableness for the other. And yes, as Brett alludes to, the world is not black and white and we will have to tread carefully in our distinctions between employees and partners.

I completely agree with Matt and Frank that there are fundamental injustices created by our entire regime of work law. Talent Wants to Be Free takes those deep structures into account in developing the more immediate and positive vision for better innovation regimes and richer talent pools. Matt writes that a more radical alternative lies within Talent but “deserves more exegesis: namely, whether we should eliminate the concept of employment entirely.” What if people will always be independent contractors?, he asks. The reforms promoted in Talent Wants to Be Free, allowing more employees more control over their human capital, indeed bring these two categories – employees and independent contractors – closer together in some respects. But far more would be needed to shift our work relations to be more “democratic and egalitarian: a post-industrial Jeffersonian economy.” As both Frank and Matt show, in their own scholarship and in their provocative comments here, this will require us to rethink so much of the world we live in.

Frank Pasquale’s review is so rich that I hope he extends and publishes it as a full article. Frank says that “for every normative term that animates [Orly’s] analysis (labor mobility, freedom of contract, innovation, creative or constructive destruction) there is a shadow term (precarity, exploitation, disruption, waste) that goes unexplored.” I would agree that the background rules that define our labor market, at will employment, inequality, class and power relations, are not themselves the target of the book. They do however deeply inform my analysis. To me, the symmetry I draw between job insecurity and the need for job opportunity is not what Frank describes as a “comforting symmetry”. It is a call for the partial correction of an outrageous asymmetry. And yes, as I mentioned at the very beginning of the symposium, I hoped in writing the book to shift some of the debates about human capital from the stagnating repetition of arguments framed as business-labor which I view not only as paralyzing and strategically unwise but also as simply incorrect and distorting. There is so much more room for win-win than both businesses and labor seem to believe. On that level, I think Frank and I actually disagree about what we would define as abuse. I do in fact believe that many of us can passionately decide to give monetary gains in return for a job that provides intangible benefits of doing something we love to do. Is that always buying into the corporate fantasy? Is that always exploitation? Don’t all of us do that when we become scholars? Still, of course I agree with many of the concrete examples that Frank raises as exploitation and precarious work – he points to domestic workers, which is a subject I have written about in a few articles (which I just realized I should probably put on ssrn – Family Geographies: Global Care Chains, Transnational Parenthood, and New Legal Challenges in an Era of Labor Globalization, 5 CURRENT LEGAL ISSUES 383 (2002) and  Class and Care, 24 HARVARD WOMENS LAW JOURNAL 89 (2001)]. Frank describes a range of discontent in such celebrated workplaces as Silicon Valley giants, which I too am concerned with and have thought about how new hyped up forms of employment can become highly coercive. Freeing up more of our human capital is huge, but yes, I agree, it doesn’t solve all the problems of our world and by no means should my arguments about the California advantage in the region’s approach to human capital and knowledge flow be read as picturing everything and anything Californian as part of a romantic ideal.

 

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