Memo: Reading Cases | jdickins | June 28, 2012


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Memo: Reading Cases

As noted, this class is unusual inasmuch as we will almost exclusively be reading primary source material – raw, unedited judicial opinions and statutes. In my opinion (which I’m more than happy to discuss at length with anyone who’s interested):

(a) it is critically important for you to develop your ability to read and to make sense of opinions as they appear in full text in the official reports;

(b) that is a difficult skill to master;

(c) like most difficult skills, you only get better at it by practice; and

(d) giving you only edited opinions to read in your “doctrinal” classes (i.e., in all classes other than those focused on “legal research and writing”) does very little to help you develop that skill.

We will, therefore, be talking throughout the semester not only about the substance of IP law – the nature of copyright “ownership,” the elements of the trademark infringement cause of action, the requirements for “novelty” in patent law, etc. – but also about how one uncovers the answers to those questions through close reading of the cases (and the relevant statutory material).

To begin with, you must read each case a minimum of two times; it is simply impossible, unless you are truly a genius, for you to make sense of what the court is doing on a single reading. Your first reading should concentrate on the following:

  • The crucial facts. Who are the parties? Who did what, to whom, to precipitate the lawsuit?
  • The claim. What is/are plaintiff’s claim/claims for relief? What provision(s) of law does plaintiff point to as establishing his/her/its right to relief, and what kind of relief (damages? an injunction? both? something else?) does he/she/it seek?
  • The outcome. Who won, and who lost? If it is an appellate decision (as most of the cases we read are), there are two separate outcomes to consider. First, who won in the trial court? What was the lower court’s judgment (i.e., granting plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, granting defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, etc.) from which the appeal was taken? Then, second: What was the appellate court’ judgment? Who wins and who loses on appeal? What happens next (i.e., has the case been remanded back to the trial court)?
  • If you can’t summarize the case under those three headings – facts, claim(s), outcome – read it over until you can. 

    At that point, you can undertake the second reading, which should focus on the court’s reasoning: How did it reach the outcome that it reached? If the court resolved the claim in plaintiff’s favor, why did it do so? How, in other words, did it get from A (the facts) to B (the conclusion that plaintiff wins)? What rule(s) of law did it apply to the facts to reach that conclusion? Thinking about these questions as you undertake your second reading is worthwhile; attempting to put your answers into written form is even better.


    Text Information

    June 14, 2013

    Professor David Post


    H2O has permission to use this resource.

    memo intellectual property reading skills

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