Document Type


Publication Date



Intellectual property is today thought to be principally of statutory origin. Discussions of the subject invariably revolve around a close scrutiny of the federal statutes involved. Indeed, the frequency with which Congress amends the patent and copyright statutes seems to leave little doubt that it alone determines intellectual property's precise content and coverage. Nevertheless, there exists a rather robust body of state law that is almost entirely the creation of state courts and is directed at creating entitlements in information, ideas, expression, goodwill, one's image, and other related intangibles. These rights regimes are in turn collectively referred to as “common law intellectual property." Examples include the right of publicity, unfair competition, common law copyright, trade secrets, misappropriation, common law idea protection, and passing off.

While each of these regimes covers a distinct intangible, they all share the same structural characteristics. Each originates in a cause of action that is grounded in tort, contract, or unjust enrichment and is tailored to the circumstances under which protection is deemed necessary. Unlike the one-size-fits-all federal copyright and patent statutes, these regimes allow courts to adopt a far more nuanced approach to intellectual property protection. Instead of relying on a single overarching theory to justify protection, courts look to the practical needs of a particular area, recognize multiple values as relevant for consideration there, and then adopt a highly contextual approach to protection, one best described as "antifoundational." Additionally, the common law method that they employ develops the law incrementally, recognizing the need for caution in a rapidly changing social and technological environment, and allowing future courts to extend, limit, or at times altogether deny protection when circumstance and context change. I call this method of adjudication and rule development "pragmatic incrementalism," in that it exhibits the characteristics of both legal pragmatism and common law incrementalism.


Common Law | Intellectual Property Law | Law


Copyright © 2010 Scholarship@Vanderbilt Law.