Intellectual Property, Independent Creation, and the Lockean Commons

12 UC Irvine Law Review 747 (2022).

59 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2019 Last revised: 18 May 2022

Date Written: February 2, 2019


Copyrights and patents are differently-structured intellectual property rights in different kinds of entities. Nonetheless, they are widely regarded by U.S. scholars as having the same theoretical underpinnings. Though scholars have sought to connect philosophical theories of property to intellectual property, with a particular interest in the labor theory of John Locke, these explorations have not sufficiently probed copyrights’ and patents’ doctrinal differences or their philosophical implications for the theories explored. This Article argues that a defining difference between copyrights and patents has normative significance for the framework of Lockean property theory: namely, that copyright law treats independent creation as a complete defense to claims of infringement while patent law does not. This distinction entails that the two legal systems differ in their effects on the “intellectual commons”, or what exactly they give to rights-holders and take away from the rest of the world. It also entails that Seana Shiffrin’s seminal challenge to Lockean theories of intellectual property—arguably the most significant philosophical exploration of intellectual property so far, but which fails to distinguish between these two areas of law—is a success as to patents but not as to copyrights. Disentangling this and other distinctions in copyrights and patents within the Lockean framework, as well as between tangible and intellectual property generally, this Article outlines a number of possible implications for intellectual property doctrine. Specifically, it identifies revisionary implications for copyright required by the Lockean framework in order to better protect the intellectual commons, as well as for the copyright/patent division of labor if the two legal systems have distinct theoretical grounds. The Article thereby uses the Lockean framework to call attention to intellectual property’s underexplored philosophical complexity, as well as its doctrinal stakes, so that we begin considering it more carefully than it has yet been.

Keywords: intellectual property, copyright, patent, legal theory, legal philosophy, jurisprudence, locke, property, property theory, moral philosophy, political philosophy

Suggested Citation

Chatterjee, Mala, Intellectual Property, Independent Creation, and the Lockean Commons (February 2, 2019). 12 UC Irvine Law Review 747 (2022)., Available at SSRN: or

Mala Chatterjee (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th St
NEW YORK, NY 10027

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