Trademark and Copyright Enforcement in the Shadow of IP Law

46 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2012 Last revised: 18 Sep 2014

Date Written: September 2, 2011


In recent years, as Congress has created new intellectual property (IP) rights and courts have often interpreted those rights broadly, legal scholars have frequently decried the expanded scope of protection afforded IP owners in most substantive areas of IP law. According to this critique, the over-expansion of IP rights throughout the past two decades harms competition, chills free speech, and diminishes the public domain as increasingly broad areas of social life are brought within the scope of strong IP protection. While this over-expansion theory reflects an important — indeed, foundational — policy debate concerning the proper balance between IP owners’ rights and the public’s rights of access to the information, ideas, and expressions that IP protects, it is incomplete because it focuses largely on what Congress or the courts do. In reality, most enforcement of IP rights takes place not in court, but in the everyday practices of IP owners and their lawyers. “Cease and desist” letters, phone calls, and negotiations with alleged infringers constitute the bulk of IP enforcement efforts in trademark and copyright practice. To be sure, these efforts take place in the “shadow” of IP law and are therefore influenced by it. But it is in these everyday practices — and not in trial or appellate courts — that most IP rights are asserted, resisted, and negotiated. Thus, if we want to know whether IP rights are over-enforced or over-extended, we need to know how, why, and to what effect these rights are exercised in the everyday practices of IP owners and their lawyers. To date, however, IP scholarship has focused virtually no attention on this critical arena of everyday practice.

This Article presents findings from a qualitative empirical study of the trademark and copyright disputing process outside of court, based on original data derived from semi-structured interviews with experienced IP attorneys who advise clients on how to enforce their rights. This research is one of the first studies to examine how trademark and copyright claims are actually enforced in practice. One significant finding from this study is that “repeat player” trademark and copyright owners (and their lawyers) knowingly assert weak IP claims at times — precisely because it works, as enforcement targets are unable or unwilling to resist claims that may lack legal merit due to the costs and uncertainties of threatened litigation. Moreover, the lawyers who assert weak IP claims have ready practical and ethical justifications for their actions. This study also suggests that legal sanctions directed at deterring over-reaching IP enforcement are unlikely to be effective because most such over-reaching occurs in informal disputing processes outside of the legal system.

Keywords: Trademark, copyright, law and society, legal profession

Suggested Citation

Gallagher, William T., Trademark and Copyright Enforcement in the Shadow of IP Law (September 2, 2011). Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 28, 2012, Available at SSRN: or

William T. Gallagher (Contact Author)

Golden Gate University School of Law ( email )

536 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States
(415) 369-5339 (Phone)

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