Intellectual Property Clause

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The Intellectual Property (IP) Clause, also known as the “Patent and Copyright Clause” refers to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, which grants Congress the enumerated power "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." It is a foundational document establishing intellectual property rights in the United States, replacing the patchwork of state-law protections that existed in the Articles of Confederation period. 

This clause gave Congress the power to enact legislation governing patents and copyrights. For patents, the clause gave Congress the power to grant inventors exclusive rights to their discoveries, allowing inventors to recoup their investment, and capitalize on their research. 

For copyrights, the clause gave Congress the power to grant authors exclusive rights over their writings. In subsequent federal legislation, such as the US Copyright Act (codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 - 810), the meaning of “writings” has expanded, now encompassing a wide range of artistic and intellectual works, from movies to software. 

The utilitarian aim of the Intellectual Property Clause is to maximize scientific and artistic progress. It does so by attempting to balance the incentives it provides for innovation, against the chilling effects that limiting access to writings and discoveries may have on novel thought. 

It attempts to achieve this end by including two limitations on Congress’ ability to protect intellectual property. First, the IP Clause gives Congress the power to grant exclusive rights over a writing & invention only for a limited time, after which the public may enjoy unfettered access to it. For creative works this is referred to as a work returning to the public domain. Second, exclusive rights can only be granted as a means to promote the progress of science and useful arts. This prevents the patenting of overly broad or useless ideas. 

However, as the IP Clause does not prescribe exact interpretations of these limitations, courts are broadly deferential to Congress. For example, the Court upheld the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 (CTEA) which stretched the definition of “limited time” by extending an author's copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years; far longer than the First Copyright Act, which lasted only 14 years.

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]