The Use and Abuse of IP at the Birth of the Administrative State


Courts and commentators have long maintained that intellectual property law and the administrative state developed as two separate legal regimes without any significant theoretical or practical contact between them, at least until recently. This standard historical story is mistaken. This article identifies a long-forgotten nexus between intellectual property law and the birth of the administrative state in the Progressive Era, and in doing so, offers at least two important insights. First, as a matter of intellectual history, it establishes that administrative law and modern intellectual property law share a common theoretical pedigree in legal realist scholarship about property in the Progressive Era. Second, and more important, this article exposes serious theoretical concerns about the success of this scholarship by Felix Cohen, Morris Cohen and others. In justifying the regulation of real property under the administrative state, the Cohens and others used intellectual property rights to advance a scathing conceptual and normative critique of the natural rights theory of property. This critique has now assumed the mantle of conventional wisdom in intellectual property law, as commentators and lawyers dismiss natural rights theory as theoretically incoherent and doctrinally indeterminate. But the legal realists’ attacked a strawman version of the natural rights theory of property, redefining its concept of “value” in unduly narrow economic terms such that it no longer resembled the same theory advanced by the natural rights philosophers or the American courts and commentators who applied their ideas in legal doctrine. This article explicates for the first time the actual premises of the legal realists’ critique of the natural rights theory of property, revealing how they failed to prove either the logical or normative incoherence of this longstanding conception of property. As such, this article exposes a fundamental lacuna in the theoretical foundations of the modern administrative state. Even more important, it challenges the misrepresentations and all-too-hasty dismissals of natural rights theory by intellectual property scholars today.