The school, which plans to announce the gift at a conference in Washington on Thursday, is using the money to fund a center focused on finding "the correct balance" between intellectual property rights and material that should be in the public domain.
James Boyle, a Duke law professor and co-director of the school's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, says that the center is likely to look skeptically at recent laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and a measure that extended duration of copyrights by 20 years.
"This is an attempt to figure out the balance between intellectual property and the public domain," Boyle said. "How much protection do we need?...If you want to have a rich culture and an innovative society, you have to leave a large amount of material freely available for all to use."
By using the term public domain, Boyle is talking about creative works such as movies, books and music that are not covered by copyright law. A work enters the public domain when the creator voluntarily relinquishes copyright protection, or, as in the case of Shakespeare's writings, when the copyright term expires.
Boyle says he is not a copyright abolitionist. He agrees that some legal protection is necessary. But, he added, "the burden of proof should be on those who say we need to have property rights in this situation. Why will this work? Why is this necessary? We see the system getting out of control, out of balance. This is a way to restore the balance."
Recent debates in Congress have started from the viewpoint of the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, rather than from what's good for consumers, Boyle said.
Kate Bartlett, the law school's dean, said she could not reveal the name of the donor. The person "wants to keep even the general background information confidential," Bartlett said.
Eight movie studios have successfully wielded the DMCA to force 2600 magazine toa copy of a DVD-decoding utility from its Web site, and the U.S. government last year arrested a on charges of creating and selling a program to rip the copy-protection technology away from Adobe Systems' electronic books.
More recently, Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Howard Coble, R-N.C., havedesigned to limit peer-to-peer piracy. It would rewrite federal law to permit nearly unchecked electronic disruptions if a copyright holder has a "reasonable basis" to believe that piracy is occurring on peer-to-peer networks.
On Thursday, the National Academy of Sciences is convening a two-day conference in Washington titled, "The Role of Scientific and Technical Data and Information in the Public Domain."