Patent Lawyers, Crony Capitalism, and the Invention of the Telephone

Technology and the law


Reviewing Christopher Beauchamp's book Invented by Law: Alexander Graham Bell and the Patent That Changed America, Graeme Gooday discusses "how the patent became a key weapon of market power and the cornerstone of a new legal-industrial complex." Here's an excerpt:

Authorship disputed.
Schoolhouse Rock

Bell's lawyers, who brought around 600 infringement cases, tailored an interpretation of his patent to suit standards of legal proof and maximize the scope of his claims—an interpretation often at odds with Bell's own. It was not Bell but his lawyers, Beauchamp stresses, who "prepared the contending positions, marshaled evidence, and argued publicly and bitterly over the origins and nature of the technology."…Beauchamp's title—Invented by Law—is thus to be taken literally: it was the practice of law that defined the identity and status of the telephone as a novel invention and crafted a patent robust enough to survive courtroom challenges.

And challenges there were. Bell had not been alone, after all, in experimenting with the aural possibilities of the electrical telegraph. [Elisha] Gray, Daniel Drawbaugh, Amos Dolbear, Peter Dowd, Antonio Meucci, and others defended rival claims to priority.

The Bell team's legal victories produced "one of industrial world's most lucrative patent-based companies," signalling "the rise of a great new corporate power that used the full force of law to ruthlessly eliminate direct competition." Meanwhile, events progressed differently overseas:

There had been significant doubts across Europe about both the public benefit and industrial necessity of patents. In July 1877, Germany finally introduced patent legislation, but before Bell's lawyers could obtain rights, the technical press had already circulated designs of the telephone, rendering it part of the public domain. Thus Germany saw the productive development of diverse telephonic equipment under conditions of open competition, without patent rights restricting the innovating activities of Bell's rivals, such as Siemens. Even within the United States, the railroad industry had seen vigorous growth without using patents to underwrite single-company monopolies. Those who would argue for the economic necessity of patenting will not find support in either the telephone or the railroad, two key inventions in America's growth to industrial supremacy.

Read the rest here.