Profiles in Scholarship

The Real Deal

Jane Ginsburg

She may have gone into the family business, but intellectual property law expert Jane Ginsburg has chosen a path all her own.

By Mary Johnson

Summer 2009

Above the door in Professor Jane C. Ginsburg’s office in Jerome Greene Hall is a poster featuring a line of men wearing police helmets, and little else, under the heading: Ladies’ Night. “What does that remind you of?” asks Ginsburg, the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law. The poster’s image looks strikingly similar to advertisements for the British film The Full Monty. And the similarity, Ginsburg explains, is not a coincidence: In fact, it prompted the creators of the play Ladies’ Night to seek more than $260 million in damages from the film’s producers for allegedly stealing their plot about a group of unemployed men who turn to stripping.

The poster is among countless examples of intellectual property law infringement that turn Ginsburg’s office into a veritable toy chest for the IP-inclined. Pulling scarves and chocolate and wine bottles out of a corner cabinet, Ginsburg traces her fingers over each legally suspect detail. “A lot of my stuff is from former students who travel the world,” she says. Ginsburg’s passion for her chosen field, it seems, can be contagious.

Some might assume that such legal fervor would be a given for a woman like Ginsburg, whose father is a tax lawyer and whose mother is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59. But their daughter at first resisted the family profession. She earned her master’s in Italian Renaissance cultural history from the University of Chicago and briefly contemplated a career as a professor. At the time, however, there weren’t many teaching jobs in the liberal arts. So Ginsburg decided on law school.

Following her graduation and a clerkship with 3rd Circuit Court Judge John J. Gibbons, Ginsburg spent three years at a New York law firm and two more in Paris working toward an advanced degree before joining the Columbia Law School faculty in 1987. Ginsburg has taught courses in IP and comparative law, as well as classes in legal methods. She also serves as director of the Law School’s Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts, which studies and endeavors to reform how the law bears on creators and their works.

In a recent article published in the Sesquicentennial Essays of the Faculty of Columbia Law School (Columbia Law School: 2008), a longer version of which is forthcoming in the Willamette Law Review, Ginsburg discusses how copyright infringement has exploded along with technological advancement. Previously, the universe of entities that could infringe copyright was limited to professional, private, and commercial intermediaries. “Now to that equation you have to add everyone on the internet who has the means to infringe copyright on a grand scale,” she says. “I suppose if I have a bias—and I admit that I probably do—it is to see that the copyright law protects the authors, the creators.”

This past spring, Ginsburg took a sabbatical from the Law School, during which she conducted research for a copyright history project at the American Academy in Rome. The trip indulged her intellectual curiosity and her love for travel. It also allowed her to escape the void left by her youngest child, who is now a freshman at the University of Chicago. “One way to cope with an empty nest,” Ginsburg says with a laugh, “is to fly the coop, too.”

Illustration by Stephen Gardner

Original photograph by Frank Miller