Any economist will tell you that patents serve as an incentive for inventive activity and commercialization, as a reward for risk, and as a prerequisite for markets in ideas. Patent/ees are modeled as a binary variable in a downloaded database, and provide an index of technological innovation, albeit with a great deal of statistical noise.
It is worth emphasizing that these data also represent an invaluable curated stock and flow of cultural knowledge, dating back to the founding of the Republic. Moreover, every one of the ten million patents filed in the USPTO harbours a word cloud of information about a person or team and their individual creativity. Consider Patent No. 2,409,635 that I randomly came upon today, which was filed on August 26, 1943 and granted three years later. The patent was for a minesweeper, and assigned to the “Government of the United States of America, as represented by the Secretary of War” (since repurposed as the Secretary of Defence). The specification noted that the inventor allowed the government royalty-free use of the invention, and his intention was to prevent foot soldiers from “great danger of body injury or death.”The Patent’s The Thing
The patentee, Lawrence Langner, like a fifth of all American inventors, was an immigrant. He was born in 1890 in Swansea, Wales, immigrated to the U.S. in 1911, and became a citizen in 1917. Langner seems to have been energetic, entrepreneurial, and whimsical. He was a prolific writer and a multiple patentee (mainly in ignitions for motors), equally skilled in the arts and in technology. His autobiography was entitled The Magic Curtain: the Story of a Life in Two Fields, Theatre and Invention. According to newspaper reports, “Langner achieved great success in two unrelated, demanding fields,” as producer/director of the Theatre Guild and as a international patent attorney and founding partner in the firm of Ladas & Parry.
But in 1918 he actually related both fields in his popular one-act play, Patent applied for (evidently the current propensity for dangling participles is not new). Since this work is now out of copyright, I can cite the following haunting lines:
Cordelia, a woman inventor of an adjustable corset, inquiring about a patent and trademark. [Gets up and peeps behind the screen in the rear of room. She then peeps through both doors.]
Cordelia: Please excuse me. I’m afraid of someone eavesdropping. I once read in the Saturday Evening Post that nine valuable inventions out of every ten are stolen.
Phipps: You need have no fear, madam. This is a reputable firm. Not a single member of my staff has sufficient intelligence to steal an invention successfully.
Phipps [Dramatically]: I can stand this no longer. What does life hold for me? Endless specifications, millions of claims and oceans of testimony. Shall I die? Supposing I should find a patent system in Heaven? No—that can’t be! In death, at least, I shall find peace.
Mrs. Phipps: He seems to be quite dead, poor fellow. I hardly ever saw him, you know. He was always going down to Washington or New York or somewhere. Patent law is a hard business. . . . . But please go on telling me about your corset.
Patent Law is a Hard Business Langner, a successful and influential patent attorney, was a co-founder of the National Inventors Council and the New York Patent Law Association. The U.S. State Department sponsored his 1919 treatise, Basic patent and trade-mark laws of the principal belligerent powers.
He was one of the American delegation to discuss intellectual property rights in The Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I (and, according to Keynes , started World War II.) The allied nations had confiscated German patents, but failed to benefit from this expropriation of inventive property rights. Success at commercialization is not just based on patent documents, but also on accompanying know-how and bundled trade secrets, so that “…the patent specifications lacked essential elements.” Countries like Britain that turned German patents over to the public domain did not improve their competitive standing. Instead, during the Paris negotiations, the terms stipulated that Germany should be required to provide their chemical products as reparation.
It was likely this experience which led Langner to a firm commitment to the sanctity of property rights in inventions. In his statement during the Congressional hearings before the House Committee on Patents in 1936, Langner emphatically spoke out against infringements of any kind on the rights of patent holders: “I feel that the damage done to the general encouragement of invention by the adoption of compulsory licensing, which damage I have seen personally in all the other patent systems of the world, is so great that I would rather risk what I regard as an academic possibility of somebody at the some time suppressing a wonderful invention than I would changing our whole patent system and jeopardizing it by introducing compulsory licenses.”
The Democratization of Invention Redux
Langner, who specialized in foreign patent systems, testified that: “I feel unequivocally that the patent system of the United States is the very best in the world…I believe that the American people are the greatest inventive nation in the world, and that our industrial supremacy is due largely to the striking differences which exist between our patent system and the patent systems of the rest of the world…America is the fountainhead of invention; exports the products of its brains in the form of foreign patents; and through its inventive products, is spreading democratic ideals throughout the world.”
The objective of this post: to demonstrate that a patent/ee is more than a zero/one observation in a database. QED.