Event Recap: Great Inventors and the Patent System

On February 16, 2017, CPIP hosted a panel discussion, America as a Place of Innovation: Great Inventors and the Patent System, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The event was co-hosted by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The video of the event is available here, and the event program is available here.

The panel featured three professors who have written extensively on the role of innovation and patenting in American history. Professor Ernest Freeberg, University of Tennessee, discussed Thomas Edison’s invention of electric light and its effects on American life and culture. Professor Christopher Beauchamp, Brooklyn Law School, discussed Alexander Graham Bell and his fight to secure patent rights in the telephone. Professor Adam Mossoff, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, discussed the centrality of patents to early American innovations by Charles Goodyear, Samuel Morse, and Joseph Singer. Arthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center, moderated the discussion. Alan Marco, Chief Economist at the USPTO, delivered the closing remarks.

The theme of the panel was twofold. First, the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth era was marked by extraordinary innovation and progress. Second, patent rights both spurred and supported American innovation at every critical juncture: from invention and discovery to commercialization, and then to the delivery of life-changing products and services to the American people.

The panel highlighted a broad and rapidly-paced array of contributions that innovators made throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, enriching and transforming American lives in the process. Several panelists emphasized the enthusiasm that Americans evinced for the inventions of their day. Electric lights, telephones, labor-saving devices, and gadgets were all welcomed by the scientific press and the populace as exciting hallmarks of progress. As Professor Freeberg emphasized, everyone agreed at the turn-of-the-century that American innovation was a deeply democratic act.

Central to the growth of innovative progress was the consolidated strength and support of the American patent system. Professor Beauchamp emphasized the multiple roles that patents play in a strong innovative economy. First, they secure rights that motivate inventors to create and commercialize their work. Second, they are an asset around which companies are organized and in which investors are eager to invest. Third, they are a business tool that enables transactions, contracts, licensing, and the exchange of rights to occur. And fourth, they are a means for disseminating and furthering public knowledge.

Patents were the bedrock of American innovation, but they were frequently also controversial. Professor Mossoff observed that today’s “patent wars” are nothing new, but instead are part of a lineage of disputes over ownership of new inventions, technologies, and commercial products. Historically, however, there is a much more important constant than litigiousness: the unique approach that America took toward patents.

As Professor Mossoff underscored, the commitment to patents is an integral and enduring part of American exceptionalism. Patents were created and protected as property rights of the innovators who created them. This has many important dimensions. Patents were from the start protected through the rule of law. They were granted to inventors not just as an abstract concept, but as a concrete grant of secure and effective rights. And they were a way for people to structure their lives.

Professor Mossoff observed that patents as property ensured that patent owners could use and deploy their inventions however they wanted. Ownership and control over patents were features of the system from its inception. This institutionalization of the patent system was central to the democratization of American innovation. It allowed Americans to invent, commercialize, and in a larger sense to innovate: to take technology and turn it into a commercial, viable product that consumers could actually use and benefit from in the marketplace.

The conversation among the panelists was centered on innovation and its longstanding role in generating disruptive innovation that changes lives as dramatically then as it does now. But an equally powerful theme was that innovation needs patents to make progress commercially viable and to bring products and services to people. It was, and has always been, the exceptional nature of the American patent system that has indeed enabled America to be the place of innovation.