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The Patent, Copyright, Trademark, and Trade Secret Horror Files

February 3, 2010

As noted here, “Ayn Rand’s newsletters used to end with a “Horror File” of monstrous but true quotations.”cen

Along those lines, it’s time to collect some choice trademark horror stories in one place. I’ll update this from time to time; feel free to add suggestions in the commcents. (Update: I have modified this post to also include outrageous examples from patent, copyright, and trade secret law. See below.)

Trademark

As noted in Trademark versus Copyright and Patent, or: Is All IP Evil?, it’s not only patent and copyright that are unlibertarian and unjust. Modern trademark law is as well. I deal with tradmark rights on pp. 58-59 of Against Intellectual Property, and also in some detail in Reply to Van Dun: Non-Aggression and Title Transfer (esp. pp. 59-63). In my view, extensions of trademark law–rights against “trademark dilution” and cybersquatting, etc.–are obviously invalid. Further, federal trademark law is problematic since it is not authorized in the Constitution.

But even if federal trademark law were abolished, as well as modern extensions such as rights against trademark dilution, even common law trademark is problematic, for three primary reasons. First, it is enforced by the state, which gets everything wrong. Second (see First), the test of “consumer confusion” is usually applied ridiculously, treating consumers like indiscriminating idiots. Third, and worst of all, the right at issue is the right of the defrauded consumer, not the competitor. Trademark law ought to be reformed by abolishing the right of trademark “owners” to sue “infringers” (except perhaps as proxy for customers, when consent can be presumed or proved–as I discuss in this interview: Free Talk Live Interview on Reducing IP Costs (Jan. 20, 2010)), and treating this as a case of the customer’s right to sue a vendor who defrauds him as to the nature of the good purchased. Some might argue that this is only a minor change, but it is not: such a change would make it clear that “knockoffs” are usually not a violation of anyone’s rights: the buyer of a $10 “Rolex” is almost never defrauded–he knows what he’s getting. Yet by giving an enforceable trademark right to the user of a mark, he can sue knockoff companies even though their customers are not defrauded and in fact are perfectly happy to buy the knockoff products.

The other fallacy is the view at work here that there is no such thing as reputation, or even identity, absent trademark law. But this is incorrect. Of course people and firms can have reputations even if trademark law is nonexistent. All that is required is that people be able to identify other people and firms, and communicate. Pro-trademark arguments often implicitly assume that this is not possible, absent state-enforced trademark law, which is ridiculous.

In any event, on to a collection of trademark outrages for the horror files (some of these are also listed in Reducing the Cost of IP Law):

 

Patent

Taken (in part) from my article Radical Patent Reform Is Not on the Way, Appendix: Examples of Outrageous Patents and Judgments:

Examples of (at least apparently) ridiculous patents and patent applications abound (more at PatentLawPractice):

The Supreme Court, in the 1882 case Atlantic Works v. Brady, 107 US 192, itself lists examples of patents issued to “gadgets that obviously have had no place in the constitutional scheme of advancing scientific knowledge … the simplest of devices.” These included

  • a particular doorknob made of clay rather than metal or wood, where differently shaped doorknobs had previously been made of clay;
  • making collars of parchment paper where linen paper and linen had previously been used;
  • a method for preserving fish by freezing them in a container that operates in the same manner as an ice-cream freezer.
  • rubber caps put on wood pencils to serve as erasers;
  • inserting a piece of rubber in a slot in the end of a wood pencil to serve as an eraser;
  • a stamp for impressing initials in the side of a plug of tobacco;
  • a hose reel of large diameter so that water may flow through the hose while it is wound on the reel;
  • putting rollers on a machine to make it movable;
  • using flat cord instead of round cord for the loop at the end of suspenders;
  • placing rubber hand grips on bicycle handlebars;
  • an oval rather than cylindrical toilet paper roll, to facilitate tearing off strips.

Below are a few notable or recent examples of large, significant, troubling, or apparently outrageous injunctions, damages awards, and the like:

Copyright

Some of these are also listed in Reducing the Cost of IP Law:

See also:

Trade Secret

Even trade secret law, the least objectionable of the four main types of IP, has been corrupted by the state.

Other

Update: see also Recent IP Horror Stories and Outrages: Tolkien, Greens, Photographers.

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