Sewing-Machine-Blogging from Prof. Adam Mossoff This Week:

I'm delighted to report that Prof. Adam Mossoff (George Mason University School of Law) will be guest-blogging this week about sewing machines. You might think that an odd topic for this blog, but I much enjoyed reading Prof. Mossoff's article about the history of sewing machines, the patent law fracas that erupted over them in the mid-1800s (A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket), and the possible implications of this history for the current debate about what patent law should do about "patent thickets." I think many of you would likewise be interested both in Prof. Mossoff's piece and in the commentary that he'll provide in his posts this week. Here's a summary of the article:

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 this case, it led to 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.

This is one of a series of articles by Prof. Mossoff on the intellectual history of intellectual property, and in particular of patent law. His previous articles have discussed matters such as the historical protection of patents under the Takings Clause and the correlation between the legal realists' theory of property in land and modern patent theory. I much look forward to Prof. Mossoff's posts.