Lemley and McKenna, ‘The Scope of IP Rights’

Intellectual property (IP) law doctrines fall into three basic categories: validity, infringement and defenses. Virtually every significant legal doctrine in IP is either about whether the plaintiff has a valid IP right that the law will recognize – validity – about whether what the defendant did violates that right – infringement – or about whether the defendant is somehow privileged to violate that right – defenses.

IP regimes tend to enforce a more or less strict separation between these three legal doctrines. They apply different burdens of proof and persuasion to infringement and validity. In many cases they ask different actors to decide one doctrine but not the other. The US Patent and Trademark Office, for example, decides questions of patent and trademark validity but not questions of infringement. Even in court, resolution of one issue is often allocated to a judge while the jury decides a different issue. And even where none of that is true, the nature of IP law is to categorize an argument in order to apply the proper rules for that argument.

The result of this separation is that parties treat IP rights ‘like a nose of wax, which may be turned and twisted in any direction’. When infringement is at issue, IP owners tout the breadth of their rights, while accused infringers seek to cabin them within narrow bounds. When it comes to validity, however, the parties reverse their position, with IP owners emphasizing the narrowness of their rights in order to avoid having those rights held invalid and accused infringers arguing the reverse.

Because of the separation between validity, infringement, and defenses, it is often possible for a party to successfully argue that an IP right means one thing in one context and something very different in another. And courts won’t necessarily detect the problem because they are thinking of only the precise legal issue before them.

The result is a number of IP doctrines that simply make no sense to an outsider. In patent law, for instance, it is accepted law that there is no ‘practicing the prior art’ defense. In other words, one can be held liable for doing precisely what others had legally done before, even though a patent isn’t supposed to cover things people have already done. In design patent law, one can be held liable for making a design that an ‘ordinary observer’ would find too similar to a patented design, even though the things that make the two look similar – say, the roundness of the wheels on my car – are not things the patentee is entitled to own. In copyright, once a court has concluded that someone has actually copied from the plaintiff, a song will sometimes be deemed infringing because of its similarity to a prior song, even if the similarity is overwhelmingly attributable to unprotectable standard components of the genre. And in trademark, a party can be deemed infringing because its products look to similar to the plaintiffs’ mark and therefore make confusion likely, even if that confusion is likely caused by non-source-designating features of the design.

The culprit is simple, but fundamental: IP regimes largely lack an integrated procedure for deciding the proper extent of an IP right. The proper scope of an IP right is not a matter of natural right or immutable definition. Rather, it is a function of the purposes of the IP regime. But without some way of assessing how broad an IP right is that considers validity, infringement, and defenses together, courts will always be prone to make mistakes in applying any one of the doctrines.

In this article, we suggest that IP regimes need a process for determining the scope of an IP right. Scope is not merely validity, and it is not merely infringement. Rather, it is the range of things the IP right lawfully protects against competition. IP rights that claim too broad a scope tend to be invalid, either because they tread on the rights of those who came before or because they cover things that the law has made a decision not to allow anyone to own. IP rights with narrower scope are valid, but the narrowness of that scope should be reflected in the determination of what actions do and do not infringe that right. And whatever the doctrinal label, we should not allow an IP owner to capture something that is not within the legitimate scope of her right. Nor should it follow from the fact that some uses are outside the lawful scope of an IP owner’s right that the IP right itself is invalid and cannot be asserted against anyone. Only by evaluating scope in a single, integrated proceeding can courts avoid the nose of wax problem that has grown endemic in IP law. Scope is, quite simply, the fundamental question that underlies everything else in IP law, but which courts rarely think about expressly.

Lemley, Mark A and McKenna, Mark P, The Scope of IP Rights (September 15, 2015).

First posted 2015-09-17 11:21:49

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