The Suppressed Misappropriation Origins of Trademark Antidilution Law: The Landgericht Elberfeld's Odol Opinion and Frank Schechter's The Rational Basis of Trademark Protection
Intellectual Property at the Edge: The Contested Contours of IP (Rochelle Cooper Dreyfuss and Jane C. Ginsburg, eds., 2013), Forthcoming
22 Pages Posted: 22 Jun 2013 Last revised: 12 Jul 2013
Date Written: June 21, 2013
Frank Schechter’s 1927 article "The Rational Basis of Trademark Protection", which remains the most cited law review article ever written on trademark law, is generally recognized as the origin of the concept of trademark dilution. Yet as is less well recognized, Schechter’s discussion of trademark dilution in "Rational Basis" relied heavily, though cagily, on the true origin of the concept: the 1924 Odol opinion of the German Landgericht Elberfeld. "Rational Basis" quotes extensively from the Odol opinion and borrows much of the opinion’s argument and terminology. Yet Schechter suppressed and apparently deliberately deleted from his quotation of the opinion its central holding, that "[i]t is opposed to good morals to appropriate thus the fruits of another’s labor in the consciousness that that other will or may thereby be damaged." This brief essay, a chapter in the forthcoming "Intellectual Property at the Edge: The Contested Contours of IP" (Rochelle Cooper Dreyfuss and Jane C. Ginsburg eds. 2013), argues that Schechter deliberately sought in Rational Basis to obscure the true nature of the Odol case and of antidilution protection, and that even a century later, his effort at obfuscation remains more or less a success, at least in the United States. What Schechter sought to obscure in "Rational Basis" is that the Odol case was not, strictly speaking, a trademark case. Rather, it was a misappropriation case that happened to involve a trademark. Schechter sought to suppress this basic truth — that the concept of trademark dilution is essentially a misappropriation concept — in order to sell his proposed doctrinal reforms to an American audience altogether suspicious of misappropriation doctrine and increasingly under the sway of American Legal Realism. To do so required a great deal of finesse, or to but it more bluntly, of dissembling, and "Rational Basis" is full of it. Due both to its frequent misdirection and ambiguity and to its emphatic suppression of any suggestion that trademark dilution is a form of misappropriation, "Rational Basis" has remained an altogether open text. Concepts like "blurring" and "tarnishment" have rushed in to fill the void left in the absence of misappropriation. Even now, in the face of ever more scholarly and judicial commentary recognizing that dilution is essentially a form of "free-riding," and likely one that typically inflicts no substantial harm on the misappropriated mark, the obfuscatory nature of Schechter’s text enables the concept of dilution to survive — and thrive — behind a fog of indeterminacy.
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