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The New Servitudes

  • Author(s): Van Houweling, Molly S
  • et al.

In the age of electronic commerce, consumers routinely acquire intangible products without engaging in any direct human interaction. These products—computer programs, digital music, et cetera—often arrive bearing terms that purport to limit the sticks in the consumers’ bundles of rights in ways that depart from the background limitations imposed by intellectual property law. For example, a consumer who has downloaded a computer program from the Internet might be presented with a screen of text imposing myriad restrictions on how the program may be used; installation commences only when the consumer clicks “I agree.” Courts in the United States have increasingly enforced such restrictions—labeling them “click-wrap licenses” and applying to them the same contractual concepts that govern face-to-face exchanges of promises. Similar licensing approaches—albeit with quite different substantive terms—have been extended into the realms of “free software” and “free culture.”

The law of tangible property offers a different lens through which to view these contemporary techniques for distributing and controlling intangible products. When someone buys land that is purportedly subject to use restrictions imposed by a prior owner, those restrictions are sometimes enforced as “servitudes”— non-possessory property interests that attach to land and impose their restrictions and obligations on generation after generation of landowners. Like click-wrap licenses and similar techniques of the digital age, use restrictions imposed by servitudes bind remote purchasers with whom the beneficiaries of the restrictions may have no direct relationship. They do not arise from any human communication, but instead “run with” the burdened assets.

Although servitudes are a familiar feature of contemporary real property law, they have long encountered judicial skepticism that has generated a host of doctrinal complications. This skepticism has been even more pronounced in the context of servitudes applied to items of tangible personal property. But it finds little expression in the current contractual approach to interpreting licenses attached to intangible products.

In this Article I develop a comprehensive account of the evolving jurisprudence of servitudes as applied to both land and personal property, identifying the sources of traditional servitude skepticism in order better to evaluate the new generation of running restrictions on intangible informational goods. I apply the lessons I draw from the old servitudes to paradigmatic examples of contemporary licensing practices—including Microsoft end-user license agreements, the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License, and Creative Commons licenses. The lessons I draw from the old servitudes bring the problems—and also the promise—of these new servitudes into sharp focus, providing a new framework within which to analyze emerging electronic commerce practices while contributing doctrinally and historically grounded insights into the ongoing debate about the proper relationship between intellectual property and the public domain.

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