From Volume 92, Number 4 (May 2019) Institutional Design in Patent Law: Private Property Rights or Regulatory […]
The Indian Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution grants Congress plenary power to regulate Native American tribes. In the absence of congressional action, a “dual sovereign” structure exists whereby the tribes are allowed—subject to constraints imposed by Congress—to exist and regulate their own affairs independently of the states and the Federal Government. As a benefit of sovereignty, tribes possess sovereign immunity—an immunity similar to the immunity granted to states under the Eleventh Amendment. Sovereign immunity as a doctrine is based in the common law and allows the sovereign to avoid being sued without its consent. Tribal sovereign immunity, unlike state sovereign immunity, is subject to congressional abrogation, meaning Congress can decide the circumstances whereby tribes are subject to suit without their consent.
In September 2017, Allergan Pharmaceuticals (“Allergan”) made news when, in the middle of a challenge to its Restasis patent’s validity in Inter Partes Review (“IPR”), it assigned its patent rights in the drug to upstate New York’s Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (“Saint Regis”). After receiving the patent rights, Saint Regis quickly licensed the Restasis patent back to Allergan for an immediate payment of $13.75 million, coupled with an additional $15 million per year in royalties. Because the transaction gave Saint Regis ownership of the patent, the tribe became the patent’s defender in the IPR proceeding. The tribe moved to have the IPR terminated, asserting their immunity from suit under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity.
On March 10, 2015, the music world was stunned when a jury in Federal District Court in Los Angeles rendered a verdict in favor of the heirs of Marvin Gaye against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who, along with rapper Clifford Harris, Jr., professionally known as “T.I.,” wrote the 2013 mega-hit song entitled “Blurred Lines.” The eight-member jury unanimously found that Williams and Thicke had infringed the copyright to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict and recently rejected Williams and Thicke’s Petition for Rehearing en banc.
The case is significant for a number of reasons. In typical music copyright cases—at least successful ones—the two works share the same (or at least a similar) sequence of pitches, with the same (or at least similar) rhythms, set to the same chords. The Blurred Lines case was unique, in that the two works at issue did not have similar melodies; the two songs did not even share a single melodic phrase. In fact, the two works did not have a sequence of even two chords played in the same order, for the same duration. They had entirely different song structures (meaning how and where the verse, chorus, etc. are placed in the song) and did not share any lyrics whatsoever.
Over the last decade, a growing consensus has emerged: there are too many patents, and they are causing a host of problems. These problems include patent “trolling,” patent “wars,” and other wasteful societal costs. In explaining this patent overabundance, some scholars have pinpointed the United States Patent Office, the governmental body responsible for issuing patents, as the main culprit. Others have blamed patent holders themselves, identifying a number of incentives these parties have to pursue patents even in cases where doing so makes little economic sense. Overall, these analyses thus typically assume a high and relatively uniform demand for patents among inventive parties—one that the United States Patent Office is only too willing to satisfy.
Yet this focus on excessive patenting obscures the reality that parties likely differ significantly in their demand for patents and other forms of intellectual property. In economic parlance, different inventive parties are likely to exhibit different “elasticities,” or sensitivities, in their demand for patents and other types of intellectual property. This Article uses economic principles to disaggregate intellectual property demand by highlighting a number of factors that may affect a party’s demand for patents and other forms of intellectual property. It argues that resource-constrained parties are more likely to exhibit more elastic demand for patents, meaning they are more sensitive to the costs of patenting, both in general and relative to the costs of other intellectual property forms. As a result, rising costs of patenting are more likely to lead resource-constrained parties to forego patenting and rely on alternative, cheaper forms of intellectual property protection when available. Well-capitalized parties, on the other hand, are more likely to exhibit relatively inelastic, high demand for patents, regardless of the costs of other intellectual property types that may otherwise function as substitutes. Thus, well-capitalized parties tend to patent en masse and complement patenting with additional intellectual property protections when available.
Design—which encompasses everything from shape, color, and packaging to user interface, consumer experience, and brand aura—is the currency of modern consumer culture and increasingly the subject of intellectual property claims. But the law of design is confused and confusing, splintered among various doctrines in copyright, trademark, and patent law. Indeed, while nearly every area of IP law protects design, the law has taken a siloed approach, with separate disciplines developing ad hoc rules and exceptions. To address this lack of coherence, this Article provides the first comprehensive assessment of the regulation of consumers’ aesthetic experiences in copyright, trademark, and patent law—what we call “the law of look and feel.” We canvas the diverse ways that parties have utilized (and stretched) intellectual property law to protect design in a broad range of products and services, from Pac-Man to Louboutin shoes to the iPhone. In so doing, we identify existing doctrines and principles that inform a normatively desirable law of look and feel that courts and Congress should extend throughout IP law’s protection of design. We argue that design law should protect elements of look and feel but remain sensitive to eliminating or mitigating exclusive rights in response to evolving standardization, consumer expectations, and context. Notably, our normative conception of design protection sometimes departs quite starkly from how courts have expansively conceptualized look and feel as protectable subject matter. Going further, we argue that the new enclosure movement of design, if not comprehensively reformed and grounded in theory, can erode innovation, competition, and culture itself.
The patent system uses exclusion to stimulate innovation. But a mounting body of evidence calls into question the assumption that innovation based on excluding others is the only, or even primary, way that the patent system supports innovation today. Nearly 50 percent of manufacturers got the idea for their most important new product from an outside source that shared it with them, 45–59 percent of patentees acquire patents in order to access the technology of others, and over 2,100 companies, including five of the top ten holders of patents, have committed to sharing their patents with others. But because the essence of a patent is the right to exclude, policymakers have paid relatively less attention to ways in which patents can be used to include and to diffuse technology. This paper focuses on the ways that innovators are modifying the patent system’s exclusionary defaults, employing open source approaches, licenses, pledges, contracts, defensive publication and patenting, and related mechanisms to share innovation—including with their rivals. This Article advocates supporting and encouraging, rather than just tolerating these uses of the patent system, for several reasons. First, as innovation takes place in open and closed modes, the patent system can increase its relevance to all types of innovation. Second, weaknesses in voluntary diffusionary arrangements—for example, the lack of enforceability of patent pledges or open source commitments, the use of patents subject to licensing commitments to seek injunctions, and the use of once-defensive patents for patent assertion —suggest that the policy environment for innovation could be improved. Finally, providing ways for patent holders to take voluntary steps to curtail or limit their rights can offer a more flexible and predictable framework for rebalancing the patent system than measures like imposing limits on patentable subject matter or compulsory licensing.
Despite Justice Scalia’s dissent and the claims of Aereo and its amici, this Note will argue that, when viewed on the whole, any potential fears that the Aereo decision could implicate the legality of cloud-based technology or affect copyright infringement analysis with respect to this industry are likely unwarranted. First, there are substantial structural differences between how Aereo operated and how cloud-based services (particularly remote storage systems) continue to run. Second, the Aereo decision is a narrow response particularly attenuated to that company’s practice of functioning like a traditional cable system while failing to pay the fees required by such systems when they rechannel broadcast networks’ signals. Thus, because the case addresses such a specific factual scenario, its holding is unlikely to be extended to other cloud-based services. To illustrate this point, Part I will discuss Aereo’s technology to clarify how the system physically functioned to stream practically live television through the Internet. Part II will analyze the key reasons why the Supreme Court found this particular technology to violate the networks’ rights, while also analyzing Justice Scalia’s concerns about potential fallout from the majority opinion, particularly with respect to the cloud industry. And finally, Part III will contrast Aereo’s technological infrastructure with that of several common cloud-computing service providers and will examine the shortcomings of the argument that Aereo leaves in flux: the legality of cloud-computing services and the copyright infringement analysis with respect to those services.
What happens when an iconic cartoon mouse and an internationally renowned, electronic dance music disc jockey face off? While this may sound like the making of a fictitious scenario, this was actually the underlying context of the 2015 trademark dispute between Walt Disney Company (“Disney”) and Joel Zimmerman —stage name “deadmau5” (pronounced “dead mouse”)—in which Disney challenged the trademark registration of deadmau5’s logo. Though short-lived, and likely best remembered for its attention grabbing headlines, the dispute is instructive as to how U.S. trademark law should adapt to international trademark disputes. While the deadmau5-Disney dispute ended by a settlement between the parties, it is extremely probable that there will be more trademark disputes with common factual underpinnings in the future; thus, the dispute raises more questions than answers.
As demonstrated by the recent Second Circuit decision in Christian Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent America Holding, Inc., a shoe can certainly offer a great deal of legal controversy. In September 2012, the Second Circuit upheld the validity of designer Christian Louboutin’s trademark for the color red on the soles of his shoes. Although Christian Louboutin and the fashion media have called the case a victory for color trademarks, Louboutin’s affirmation of the “aesthetic functionality” doctrine will likely make defending color trademarks harder in the future. Further, a survey of color trademark registration activity and case law reveals that the Louboutin decision is an outlier, and the overwhelming tendency of courts is to weaken color marks in infringement lawsuits. Therefore, color mark applicants and current color trademark holders face steep obstacles in registering and protecting their color marks, and this battle will likely become more challenging in the near future.
For years, the United States has included intellectual property (“IP”) law in its free trade agreements. This Article finds that the IP law in recent U.S. free trade agreements differs subtly but significantly from U.S. IP law. These differences are not the result of deliberate government choices, but of the capture of the U.S. trade regime.
A growing number of voices has publicly criticized the lack of transparency and democratic accountability in the trade agreement negotiating process. But legal scholarship largely praises the ‘fast track” trade negotiating system. This Article reorients the debate over the trade negotiating process away from discussions of democratic accountability to focus instead on the problem of regulatory capture. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (“USTR”) is exempt from the Administrative Procedure Act and functionally exempt from the bulk of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. As a result, the USTR is likely to be captured by private parties through information asymmetry and to negotiate against the public good. Subject matter areas that are subject to collective action problems, such as intellectual property law, are particularly likely to be captured in the USTR.