It’s easy to assume that today’s patent wars are a new phenomenon. With billions of dollars spent on litigation – a figure that, in many cases, exceeds the amount used in research and development – the scale and intensity of today’s patent litigation can seem unique in history.
Despite this assumed uniqueness, today’s patent wars are not only very similar to those that occurred during previous centuries, but in some cases actually smaller in scale than their forerunners. Today’s patent-related lawsuits are both less common and less costly than those that have occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
As the vast majority of patent-related litigation occurs in the USA, we will start our historical look at patent litigation there. The United States’ first patent laws emerged in the year 1790. Patents were, at first, relatively unpopular, attracting attention on a small scale amongst inventors and business people.
As the Industrial Revolution began in the next century, however, patents became an important part of American economic development. One of the first technologies to be fought over in patent-related lawsuits was the sewing machine. This invention was the subject of a series of lawsuits between Elias Hunt and Isaac Singer.
The two inventors both claimed to have designed the sewing machine on their own, with Mr Hunt patenting his design in 1846 and Mr Singer pursuing a claim against him in 1850. Many of the issues debated during this case and others from the mid-19th century mirror those of today’s patent disputes – broad, overly vague patents that overlap, and wording that allows lawsuits and claims to easily be made.
As with many of today’s patent disputes, the legal battle between Mr Hunt and Mr Singer was not resolved swiftly. The lawsuit took six years to settle, with a patent pool established to satisfy both patent owners. Like today’s patent disputes, it was an expensive and exhausting process that cost far more than it truly gained.
A variety of other 19th century inventions were fought over in patent-related claims, including the telephone and barbed wire. The airplane – one of the most important and technologically influential inventions of the 19th century – was also fought over in a lengthy patent lawsuit.
In the case of the telephone, just five hours passed between the filing of the first and second patents for the technology. Alexander Bell’s patent was called “Improvement in Telegraphy”, with Elisha Gray’s patent instead called “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically”. The vague, broad nature of each patent is visible not just in its full content but in the title of each – a broad and easily disputable name for a patent.
During the litigation that followed, over 580 separate lawsuits were filed, making the telephone one of history’s most fought over technologies. Today’s smartphone wars seem small, inconsequential, and in some cases less expensive in comparison to those fought for the rights to the original telephone.
In many ways, the late 19th century can be regarded as the period of endless patent warfare. It has since been estimated that 3.6% of all patents filed during the late 19th century were disputed in extended courtroom battles, compared to the 1.5% fought over today.
This historical perspective makes today’s technology-related patent wars seem like less of a new phenomenon and far more an evolution in litigation. During the early years of the 20th century, new technologies in the pharmaceutical industry replaced items like the telephone and airplane as the subject of serious patent disputes.
While today’s patent lawsuits may have grown into media showcases, it’s important to remember that they are in no way unique in history. Yesteryear’s patent disputes were every bit as costly, as time-consuming, and as frustrating for innovators as the ‘smartphone wars’ of today.
This article was written by VanninCapital . Visit their website to learn more about how litigation funding works.