University of Southern California

The Law of Look and Feel

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Article by Peter Lee & Madhavi Sunder
From Volume 90, Number 3 (March, 2017)

Design—which encompasses everything from shape, color, and packaging to user interface, consumer experience, and brand aura—is the currency of modern consumer culture and increasingly the subject of intellectual property claims. But the law of design is confused and confusing, splintered among various doctrines in copyright, trademark, and patent law. Indeed, while nearly every area of IP law protects design, the law has taken a siloed approach, with separate disciplines developing ad hoc rules and exceptions. To address this lack of coherence, this Article provides the first comprehensive assessment of the regulation of consumers’ aesthetic experiences in copyright, trademark, and patent law—what we call “the law of look and feel.” We canvas the diverse ways that parties have utilized (and stretched) intellectual property law to protect design in a broad range of products and services, from Pac-Man to Louboutin shoes to the iPhone. In so doing, we identify existing doctrines and principles that inform a normatively desirable law of look and feel that courts and Congress should extend throughout IP law’s protection of design. We argue that design law should protect elements of look and feel but remain sensitive to eliminating or mitigating exclusive rights in response to evolving standardization, consumer expectations, and context. Notably, our normative conception of design protection sometimes departs quite starkly from how courts have expansively conceptualized look and feel as protectable subject matter. Going further, we argue that the new enclosure movement of design, if not comprehensively reformed and grounded in theory, can erode innovation, competition, and culture itself.

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