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The Trespass Fallacy in Patent Law

Thank you to Josh for inviting me to guest blog on Truth on the Market.  As my first blog posting, I thought TOTM readers would enjoy reading about my latest paper that I posted to SSRN, which has been getting some attention in the blogosphere (see here and here).  It’s a short, 17-page essay — see, it is possible that law professors can write short articles — called, The Trespass Fallacy in Patent Law.

This essay responds to the widely-heard cries today that the patent system is broken, as expressed in the popular press and by tech commentators, legal academics, lawyers, judges, congresspersons and just about everyone else.  The $1 billion verdict issued this past Friday against Samsung in Apple’s patent infringement lawsuit, hasn’t changed anything. (If anything, Judge Richard Posner finds the whole “smart phone war” to be Exhibit One in the indisputable case that the patent system is broken.)

Although there are many reasons why people think the patent system is systemically broken, one common refrain is that patents fail as property rights because patent infringement doctrine is not as clear, determinate and efficient as trespass doctrine is for real estate. Thus, the explicit standard that is invoked to justify why we must fix patent boundaries — or the patent system more generally — is that the patent system does not work as clearly and efficiently as fences and trespass doctrine do in real property. As Michael Meurer and James Bessen explicitly state in their book, Patent Failure: “An ideal patent system features rights that are defined as clearly as the fence around a piece of land.”

My essay explains that this is a fallacious argument, suffering both empirical and logical failings. Empirically, there are no formal studies of how trespass functions in litigation; thus, complaints about the patent system’s indeterminacy are based solely on an idealized theory of how trespass should function.  Often times, patent scholars, like my colleague, T.J. Chiang, just simply assert without any supporting evidence whatsoever that fences are “crystal clear” and thus there are “stable boundaries” for real estate; T.J. thus concludes that the patent system is working inefficiently and needs to be reformed (as captured in the very title of his article, Fixing Patent Boundaries). The variability in patent claim construction, asserts T.J. is tantamount to “the fence on your land . . . constantly moving in random directions. . . . Because patent claims are easily changed, they serve as poor boundaries, undermining the patent system for everyone.”

Other times, this idealized theory about trespass is given some credence by appeals to loose impressions or a gestalt of how trespass works, or there are appeals to anecdotes and personal stories about how well trespass functions in the real world. Bessen and Meurer do this in their book, Patent Failure, where they back up their claim that trespass is clear with a search they apparently did on Westlaw of innocent trespass cases in California in a 3-year period. Either way, assertions backed by intuitions or a few anecdotal cases cannot serve as an empirical standard by which one makes a systemic evaluation that we should shift to anther institutional arrangement because the current one is operating inefficiently. In short, the trespass standard represents the nirvana fallacy.

Even more important, anecdotal evidence and related studies suggest that trespass and other boundary disputes between landowners are neither as clear nor as determinate as patent scholars assume them to be (something I briefly summarize on in my essay and call for more empirical studies to be done).

Logically, the comparison of patent boundaries to trespass commits what philosophers would call a category mistake. It conflates the boundaries of an entire legal right (a patent), not with the boundaries of its conceptual counterpart (real estate), but rather with a single doctrine (trespass) that secures real estate only in a single dimension (geographic boundaries). As all 1Ls learn in their Property courses, real estate is not land. Accordingly, estate boundaries are defined along the dimensions of time, use and space, as represented in myriad doctrines like easements, nuisance, restrictive covenants, and future interests, among others. In fact, the overlapping possessory and use rights shared by owners of joint tenancies or by owners of possessory estates with overlapping future interests share many conceptual and doctrinal similarities to the overlapping rights that patent-owners may have over a single product in the marketplace (like a smart phone).  In short, the proper conceptual analog for patent boundaries is estate boundaries, not fences.

In sum, the trespass fallacy is driving an indeterminacy critique in patent law that is both empirically unverified and conceptually misleading, and check out my essay for much more evidence and more in-depth explanation of why this is the case.

Filed under: intellectual property, law and economics, patent, SSRN, truth on the market