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The Mythical Beginnings of Intellectual Property


It has become commonplace to justify intellectual property protection with homage to utilitarianism (maximizing the incentive to create, invent or produce quality goods) or natural rights (people should own the product of their creative, inventive or commercial labor). Despite the on-going dominance of these theories, there remains a dissatisfying lack of a comprehensive explanation for the value of intellectual property protection. This is in part because the economic analysis of law tends to undervalue the humanistic element of intellectual property. This Article aims to fill that void. It offers a new explanation for intellectual property rooted in narrative theory. Whereas utilitarianism and natural rights theories are familiar, there is at least another basis for intellectual property protection. This Article contends that all the U.S. copyright, patent and trademark regimes are structured around and legitimated by central origin myths – stories that glorify and valorize enchanted moments of creation, discovery or identity. As a cultural analysis of law, rather than the more familiar economic theory of law, this Article seeks to explain how these intellectual property regimes work the way they do. And as a narrative explanation for the structure of intellectual property protection, this Article enhances the more customary economic or philosophical accounts of intellectual property because narrative, especially one devoted to myth-making in our society, provides “models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.”

Origin stories serve both ontological and epistemological functions. They infuse everyday life and relations with significance by explaining why things are as they are and by providing guidance for how things should evolve based on what we already understand about our world. Origin stories also literally give a culture life by designating a beginning and a history. Finally, most origin stories are political, legitimating or justifying certain relations of power in society. This Article is a comparative analysis of the “origin stories” that structure several branches of United States intellectual property protection: copyright, trademark and patent law. When contrasting the three statutory intellectual property regimes for their structured valuation and reification of their own origin myth, the Article shows how the origin myths structuring intellectual property protection articulate a well-worn story about the origins and continuing vitality of the American republic (rugged individualism and the American dream). Each part also draws on popular cultural stories about intellectual property and a recent intellectual property dispute to illuminate how origin myths structure the respective discourses of these intellectual property systems and explain adjudicative results.

Jessica M. Silbey, The Mythical Beginnings of Intellectual Property, 15 Geo. Mason L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2008).

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