A License is not a "Contract not to Sue": Disentangling Property and Contract in the Law of Copyright Licenses


The assertion that a “license” is simply a “contract not to sue” has become a commonplace in both copyright and patent law. I argue that this notion is conceptually flawed, and has become a straightjacket channeling juristic reasoning into unproductive channels. At root, a license is not a contract, but a form of property interest. It may be closely intertwined with a set of contractual relationships, but its nature and consequences cannot be satisfactorily explained from within the world of contract doctrine alone. In this article, I seek to explain the complementary but parallel roles played by property and contract doctrine in creation of the various forms of legal interests we refer to as “licenses.” Each doctrine has its own set of governing formalities that afford titleholders various means through which to create and protect use privileges granted to others, while still retaining residual title for themselves. I argue that clarifying the extent to which licenses are exercises of powers conferred by property rather than contract law provides a key to proper application of Section 204 of the Copyright Act of 1976, which has been (erroneously) construed as a statute of frauds governing contract formation, as opposed to one governing a specific form of property conveyance.