Sears-Compco Doctrine Law and Legal Definition

The Sears-Compco doctrine addresses instances where state law extends protection against copying to unpatented or unregistered articles found to be in the public domain. In such cases, when a state law so impedes public use of the otherwise unprotected design and utilitarian ideas, the state law protecting the ideas may be preempted by federal law denying the protection. The application of Sears-Compco doctrine often arises in trade dress matters, since trade dress generally cannot be patented or registered. It limits the extent to which states may protect against misappropriation. However, under the Sears-Compco doctrine, federal patent laws do not preempt all state unfair competition laws. The doctrine gets its name from the two cases , Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co., 376 U.S. 225 (U.S. 1964) and Compco Corp. v. Day-Brite Lighting, Inc., 376 U.S. 234 (U.S. 1964) which considered the issue whether state law can protect the physical configuration of an unpatented product from unauthorized copying. Read at their highest level of generality, the two decisions could be taken to stand for the proposition that the States are completely disabled from offering any form of protection to articles or processes which fall within the broad scope of patentable subject matter. Since the potentially patentable includes "anything under the sun that is made by man," the broadest reading of Sears would prohibit the States from regulating the deceptive simulation of trade dress or the tortious appropriation of private information. While Sears speaks in absolutist terms, its conclusion that the States may place some conditions on the use of trade dress indicates an implicit recognition that all state regulation of potentially patentable but unpatented subject matter is not ipso facto pre-empted by the federal patent laws.[Bonito Boats v. Thunder Craft Boats, 489 U.S. 141, 154 (U.S. 1989)]