A Stitch in Time

 Posted by on 6 May 2009 at 11:01 pm  Intellectual Property, Law
May 062009

George Mason law professor Adam Mossoff recently wrote me about his working paper on “the invention, patenting and commercialization of the sewing machine in the antebellum era.” The paper — “A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket” — can be freely downloaded from SSRN.

Here’s his abstract:

The invention of the sewing machine in the antebellum era was an achievement on par with the latest high-tech or pharmaceutical discovery today. This paper presents the first comprehensive empirical study by a legal scholar of the invention, patenting and commercialization of the sewing machine in the nineteenth century.

In so doing, it challenges many assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system, revealing that complementary inventions, extensive patent litigation, so-called “patent trolls,” patent thickets, and privately formed patent pools have long been features of the American patent system reaching back to the antebellum era. This is particularly significant with respect to patent thickets, as there is a vigorous debate on whether patent thickets exist. The sewing machine patent thicket — called the “Sewing Machine War” — confirms that patent thickets are not just a theoretical construct. But the Sewing Machine War also reveals how patent-owners have strong incentives to resolve patent thickets.

In the case of the Sewing Machine War, these incentives prompted the formation of the first patent pool in American history — the Sewing Machine Combination. Even more important, this innovative contractual solution to the first patent thicket occurred at a time when patent-owners received strong legal protection of their property rights (injunctions), including even injunctions issued on behalf of Elias Howe, who was a “non-practicing entity” or “patent troll.” The Sewing Machine Combination ultimately spurred further commercial innovation that was essential to the success of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Thus, the story of the invention of the sewing machine is a striking account of early American technological, commercial and legal ingenuity, which heralds important empirical lessons for understanding how the successful American patent system has weathered patent thickets and related problems.

He also mentioned to me the following:

Objectivists will appreciate this historical case study, because it’s a great concretization of the values made possible by the political and economic freedom secured to American citizens in the nineteenth century. All in all, it’s a fascinating tale of early American ingenuity in every aspect of modern life–in technology, law, and commerce.

The topic is currently under discussion at The Volokh Conspiracy, where Adam has been guest-blogging there for the past week on his paper. He has quite a few posts already, and you can find them all via the first post.

I’ve not yet read the paper, but I look forward to doing so… as I so often say these days… when I’m done the dissertation.

Also, I should mention that Adam is an occasional character on one of my favorite blogs — The Little Things, written by his wife Amy.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha