Friday, December 12, 2014

Christopher Beauchamp: Invented By Law

I have just obtained my copy of Christopher Beauchamp's new book, Invented by Law: Alexander Graham Bell and the Patent That Changed America, which recounts the story of Alexander Graham Bell's legal battles over his telephone patent, and in doing so reconstructs the world of nineteenth century patent litigation. The book is published by Harvard University Press and is available on

Invented by Law is a wonderful read and an invaluable addition to patent law history. It is scrupulously supported by footnotes to the major scholarship, but because Beauchamp is a trained historian, the book makes unusually thorough use of the primary sources, rather than relying heavily on others. Some of Beauchamp's empirical findings, such as his documentation of just how much patent litigation was going on in the nineteenth century, will be surprising.

Beauchamp is also an exceptionally engaging and insightful writer, and the book is uniquely approachable and admirably concise. It comes in at only 200 pages not including footnotes. Here is a brief excerpt from the Introduction (pp. 6-7) to give you a flavor of the style and analysis – though the real treat is the history that comes afterwards.
"Patent practice has has long labored under a reputation for inaccessibility, professional specialization, and narrowly fact-specific court rulings. All these factors have functioned to distance patent law from the historical mainstream. Recent years have seen a number of important scholarly inroads into the social, political, and ideological landscape of the patent system. Even so, the historical law of patents remains in many ways unmapped, and its connection to the broader setting of legal and political institutions unclear. This obscurity is unfortunate, since patent law was far from being a legal backwater. Instead it was an ubiquitous feature of rapid technological development, a palpable force in the lived experience of American industrialization, and an integral part of the law.   
For a start, it would be hard to overstate the number of major new technologies that were subject to patent litigation in this period. Well-known bids for legal control such as Bell's claim to the telephone, Morse's to the telegraph, Edison's to the electric lamp, and the Wright Brother's to the airplane are just the beginning. 
At the same time, patent practice was a prominent and well integrated branch of the law. An astonishing proportion of federal cases in the major industrial jurisdictions were patent cases: in some courts, patent matters made up a third or even a half of the decisions published by the court reporters. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, patent business was a staple activity of the elite bar. Senators and cabinet officials routinely argued patent suits in the Supreme Court and lower tribunals. One indicator of the reach and prestige of the field is that no fewer than three members of President Lincoln's cabinet had been involved in high profile patent matters, as had Lincoln himself. 
Patent law is overdue, then, for a move into the historical limelight."

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