Common Law Property Metaphors on the Internet: The Real Problem with the Doctrine of Cybertrespass
University of Pennsylvania Law School
Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, Vol. 12, p. 265, 2006
The doctrine of cybertrespass represents one of the most recent attempts by courts to apply concepts and principles from the real world to the virtual world of the Internet. A creation of state common law, the doctrine essentially involved extending the tort of trespass to chattels to the electronic world. Consequently, unauthorized electronic interferences are deemed trespassory intrusions and rendered actionable. The present paper aims to undertake a conceptual study of the evolution of the doctrine, examining the doctrinal modifications courts were required to make to mould the doctrine to meet the specificities of cyberspace. It then uses cybertrespass to examine the implications of transposing property metaphors to the world of the Internet, characterized by the absence of resource rivalry and the reality of positive value enhancement through increased usage (i.e., a network effect, whereby participation in use by many is a condition for value in use by any). It is argued that the transposition of proprietary concepts to the Internet is done for purely instrumental reasons - reasons that derive neither from the nature of the resource nor its usage. The paper then evaluates whether such an instrumental use of proprietary concepts on the Internet has any effect on the meaning ordinarily attributed to the concept of property and the identification of property as an independent institution of moral significance. It concludes by showing that the relative neglect that doctrines such as cybertrespass have for identifying the boundaries of the res over which the property right is to operate, is capable of undermining the minimum core of any understanding of property as an independent institution.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 69
Keywords: property, internet, metaphors, trespass to chattels
JEL Classification: K11
Date posted: February 27, 2006 ; Last revised: May 27, 2014