Patent Wars: Litigation History From 1790 to Today

Patent wars are no longer ‘exposed’ in the inner pages of investing magazines. With major technology companies like Apple and Samsung constantly gearing up for war, today’s patent wars are mainstream news.

In fact, today’s patent wars are such big news that leading political figures, including President Barack Obama, have stepped in to attempt to resolve the fights started by some of the world’s largest companies.

After the International Trade Commission placed sanctions against Apple marketing its older-model iPhone and iPad in the United States, the President vetoed the order and publicly sided with the Cupertino-based technology company.

Because of today’s patent litigation headlines, many people mistakenly assume that patent warfare is an exclusively modern phenomenon. In historical terms, however, both the scale and intensity of today’s patent warfare is – to put it lightly – trivial.

Patent laws were first established in the United States in 1790. Innovators rushed to secure their intellectual property against imitation and theft. However, patent laws were considered a fringe aspect of commercial law until the Industrial Revolution occurred towards the end of the 18th century.

The sewing machine, one of the most important developments of the era, was also one of the first to be patented. The machine itself was the subject of a long lawsuit between Isaac Singer and Elias Hunt. The two eventually pooled their patents and avoided a costly patent battle in the form of a licensing agreement.

Interestingly, many of the issues argued in the sewing machine patent case remain identical to those argued today. Patents with vague wording and broad protection were aspects of the sewing machine lawsuits, as were overlapping patents that made unjust and aggressive lawsuits possible.

While the agreement to pool their patents and pay royalties avoided what could have been a wasteful patent war, it wasn’t without its own expenses. The lawsuit between Mr Howe and Mr Singer went on for six years, costing both parties more than it earned them.

Patent warfare continued during the late 19th century. Inventions like barbed wire and the telephone were subject to claims and disputes, many of which cost more in proportional terms than today’s patent lawsuits. After the airplane was pioneered in the late 19th century, it too was fought over in the courtroom.

One of the most remarkable early patent cases is that of the telephone. The first and second patents for the rights to the telephone were filed just five hours apart, by the well-known inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray.

Patented telephone box
photo credit: national museum of american history

The patents were vague, overly broad, and laughably disputable. Bell’s patent was called “Improvement in Telegraphy”, while Gray’s was called “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically”. The telephone was eventually fought over in a series of over 580 separate lawsuits

Compared to the battle for the rights to the original telephone, today’s battles over smart phone technology seem small. They’re also comparatively less expensive, at least in relative terms. The original telephone was one of the most quarrelsome inventions of the 19th century.

While today’s technology industry disputes certainly signal a new area of patent-related warfare, the late 19th century is widely regarded as the most contentious period of patent infringement litigation. Experts have estimated that an amazing 3.6% of all late 19th century patents were fought over in court, often in wasteful, costly lawsuits.

In contrast, just 1.5 per cent of all patents are the subjects of patent infringement lawsuits today.

As the 19th century led into the 20th century, the constant disputes over the rights to new technology spread to the pharmaceutical industry. Drug developments became the new target of patent warfare, replacing the industrial and consumer technology that had been the hallmark of 19th century patent warfare.

Patent warfare has occurred throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, making it untrue to call it a recent phenomenon. Like other litigation trends, it has occurred in waves alongside developments in technology. While today’s patent disputes might seem endless and unique, they’re simply another frustrating wave of wasteful and costly commercial warfare that innovators are forced to tolerate.

About the Author: This article was written by Vannin Capital. Visit their website to learn more about how patents affect business litigation.