Credit Where It's Due: The Law and Norms of Attribution

Document Type



The most up-to-date version of this piece can be found in the Duke Law Scholarship


The reputation we develop by receiving credit for the work we do proves to the world the nature of our human capital. If professional reputation were property, it would be the most valuable property that most people own because much human capital is difficult to measure. Although attribution is ubiquitous and important, it is largely unregulated by law. In the absence of law, economic sectors that value attribution have devised non-property regimes founded on social norms to acknowledge and reward employee effort and to attribute responsibility for the success or failure of products and projects. Extant contract-based and norms-based attribution regimes fail optimally to protect attribution interests. This article proposes a new approach to employment contracts designed to shore up the desirable characteristics of existing norms-based attribution systems while allowing legal intervention in cases of market failure. The right to public attribution would be waivable upon proof of a procedurally fair negotiation. The right to attribution necessary to build human capital, however, would be inalienable. Unlike an intellectual property right, attribution rights would not be enforced by restricting access to the misattributed work itself; the only remedy would be for the lost value of human capital. The variation in attribution norms that currently exists in different workplace cultures can and should be preserved through the proposed contract approach. The proposal strikes an appropriate balance between expansive and narrow legal protections for workplace knowledge and, in that respect, addresses one of the most vexing current debates at the intersection of intellectual property and employment law.

Date of Authorship for this Version

March 2006