by Dennis Crouch
Professor Adam Mossoff recently posted a draft of his essay Trespass Fallacy in Patent Law. The essay is quite short (17 pages) and accessible. Mossoff is able to encapsulate his basic idea in one paragraph. He writes:
One common refrain [from patent critics] 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. This essay explains that this is a fallacious argument, suffering both logical and empirical failings. 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). Estate boundaries are defined along the dimensions of time, use and space, as reflected in numerous legal doctrines that secure estates, such as adverse possession, easements, nuisance, restrictive covenants, and future interests, among others. The proper conceptual analog for patent boundaries is estate boundaries, not fences. Empirically, there are no formal studies of how trespass or even estate boundaries function in litigation; thus, complaints about the patent system’s indeterminacy are based solely on an idealized theory of how trespass should function; it’s the nirvana fallacy. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence and related studies suggest that estate boundaries are neither as clear nor as determinate as patent scholars assume it to be. In short, the trespass fallacy is driving an indeterminacy critique in patent law that is both empirically unverified and conceptually misleading.
In this essay, Mossoff makes an important contribution to the rhetoric of patent policy. The most convincing element of his argument is that the trespass metaphor fails. In my view, his broader real estate metaphor also fails because it also does not fit well with the U.S. patent system except in its level of complication and dispute potential. The reality is that all metaphors fail to fully mirror their subject — by definition a metaphor is something different from its subject. With that in mind, I see the essay as raising a cautionary flag against over-reliance rather than a complete indictment.
My more important critique of Mossoff's argument is derived from his suggestion that we hold-off improving the patent system until we know which metaphor is best and whether issued patents are more indeterminate than real estate deeds. Mossoff writes:
Until firm factual grounding for this normative critique is first established, commentators, legislators and courts might want to pause before continuing to make fundamental structural changes to the American patent system.
Even if Mossoff's base critiques of the trespass metaphor are all correct, we still know that the U.S. patent system has room for improvement. The fact that the real estate market is in shambles should not serve as a justification for officials (or comentators) to fail in their duty to make our system the best that it can possibly be.