Contracting into Liability Rules: Intellectual Property Rights and Collective Rights Organizations

in the California Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 5 (1996).

Posted: 11 Aug 1997

See all articles by Robert P. Merges

Robert P. Merges

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law


As intellectual property rights have gained in prominence, businesspeople and scholars alike have complained of the increasing burden of obtaining intellectual property licenses and, failing this, litigating intellectual property disputes. Intellectual property experts, especially scholars, have responded to this burgeoning thicket of rights with a series of initiatives to expedite deal making by means of statutory compulsory licensing. These licenses are classic examples of "liability rulesh" in the foundational legal entitlements framework of Guido Calabresi and A. Douglas Melamed. They appear to be a compromise: they address the mushrooming transactional hurdle created by new and stronger intellectual property rights, while preserving most of the economic advantages that accompany strengthened rights. In this Article, Professor Merges argues that proposals to create more compulsory licenses are rooted in a faulty theoretical framework. Based on a survey of the diverse institutions various industries have cultivated to handle intellectual property transactions, Merges contends that "repeat players" (individuals and firms that frequently need to exchange rights) can and often do take steps to overcome transactional bottlenecks. Whether through copyright collectives, such as ASCAP and BMI in the music industry, or undertakings such as patent pools in automobile and aircraft manufacturing, those with a recurring need to transact in intellectual property rights invest in administrative structures that lower the costs of exchanging rights. Among other functions, these collective rights organizations promulgate rules and procedures for placing a monetary value on members' property rights. They thus conserve on transaction costs either by making it easier to identify and locate rightholders, or by creating the occasion for repeat-play, reciprocal bargaining, versus more costly one-shot exchanges. Drawing on a body of academic literature known as the new institutional economics, Professor Merges explains and analyzes the origins and operation of these organizations. He also argues that entitlement theory must be adjusted to recognize the possibility that such institutions will evolve out of a background of strong property rights. More generally, he points out that entitlement theory ought to incorporate a more dynamic understanding of the importance of contracting after entitlements are granted. Professor Merges applies his observations and theoretical insights to an important contemporary controversy: whether Congress ought to legislate a compulsory license for digital content needed by the multimedia industry. He argues that it should not. Given the underlying economics, and consistent with experience in other industries, existing intellectual property rights will force industry participants to invest in institutions to conduct transactions. Indeed, consistent with the analysis in this Article, evidence indicates this is already occurring.

JEL Classification: K11, K13, K39

Suggested Citation

Merges, Robert P., Contracting into Liability Rules: Intellectual Property Rights and Collective Rights Organizations. in the California Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 5 (1996)., Available at SSRN:

Robert P. Merges (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

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