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April 24, 2008

Lincoln's Famous Words

On February 11, 1859, Abraham Lincoln gave a lecture to the inhabitants of Jacksonville, Illinois on the topic of discoveries and inventions.  His most famous words from this lecture are the last few that were recorded:

"Next came the Patent laws.  These began in England in 1624;* and, in this country, with the adoption of our constitution.  Before then, any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention.  The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."

It's hard to overstate the importance these words have had for patent law.  They have been a motto for patent lawyers for generations.  But not many people, even patent lawyers, have read the whole speech.  Everyone in America should be required to read this speech in high school or college.  I will come back to it again and again in the future.  There are many, many posts I could write about this speech.  Practically every sentence in it sparkles with insight into human nature and invention.  The speech is as beautiful a piece of American prose as we are ever likely to get from a patent lawyer.

In this speech, Lincoln anthropomorphizes the United States into "Young America," the "most current youth of the age," which some people "think conceited, and arrogant; but has he not reason to entertain a rather expensive opinion of himself?"  Lincoln is funny, but also honest.  For example, he observes how Young America "is always very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land, and have not any liking for his interference."  Have we changed much?  Read the whole thing to get all of his insights into questions about the relationship between "Old Fogy" and "Young America" (i.e., international trade and politics), natural resource use,  the process of invention, joint invention, and more.

But my point in this post is that he miscalculated one important thing.  It's a miscalculation that he can hardly be faulted for.  Nobody can see into the future.  But it's important to revisit the past, and reconsider Lincoln's words now as we consider and reconsider how we as a nation are going to grow in the future.

In this speech, Lincoln delineates four stages of human progress in making inventions and discoveries. 

First, Lincoln points to human speech.  "If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you.  But to carry on such communication, some instrumentality is indispensable."  Second, is writing -- "the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye."  Third, printing, "a great gain; and history shows a great change corresponding to it, in point of time."

And finally came the fourth, and the passage from this speech that everyone is familiar with.  Lincoln picked patent law as the fourth stage of human progress in promoting inventions and discoveries.

Even Lincoln couldn't have predicted the Internet.  None of us did.  It just happened, much like the printing press did in the 15th century.  We're still experiencing the aftershocks, and will be for some time. There are some Catholic churches in the world that are not ready for the democratisation of knowledge made possible by the Internet.

So Lincoln was wrong about one thing: patent laws are not the fourth stage in human progress.  They're the fifth.

* As an aside, regular readers will note that Lincoln was also mistaken in attributing the origination of patent laws to the English Statute of Monopolies.  The Venetians had a patent system in place in the late 15th century.  And English and other European monarchs were granting exclusive rights to inventions by letters patent well before the Statute of Monopolies anyway.

Posted by Michael Martin at April 24, 2008 9:34 AM | The Patent System


The patent system may be older than that. I had once heard that Sybaris (in ancient Greece) awarded exclusivity to those who invented new dishes and beverages, and that the quality of their food and drink was such that their name is now synonymous with luxury and refinement (sybarite). If anyone has documentary evidence backing this up, I'd love to see it. I've looking for some for a while.

Posted by: Patent_Medicine at April 25, 2008 3:50 AM

Merges and Duffy did a very nice job with the historical overview in their "Patent Law and Policy" casebook: http://www.amazon.com/Patent-Law-Policy-Cases-Materials/dp/1422417646/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1209166739&sr=8-1

There is an ancient Greek precedent for rewarding inventors. Merges and Duffy discuss Aristotle's mention of it in his "Politics." But the Venetian Act of 1474 was the first to have eligible subject matter, registration, novelty, enablement, term-length, process for redress of infringement, and remedies delineated. Actually, it's a shocking anachronism until you dig into the history of Venice and realize that it was culturally the home to one of the most efficient and free markets in the history of the world.

Posted by: Michael Martin at April 25, 2008 3:45 PM