On Presidents, Leaders and Patents

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Today, February 15, 2015, is the Presidents Day holiday in the United States. This holiday celebrates the birthdays of two of America’s greatest presidents, George Washington (February 22), and Abraham Lincoln (February 12).   Symbolically, it celebrates all American presidents.

One common theme of these two great leaders has been their support of the patent system. Two hundred and twenty five years ago, on January 8, 1790, George Washington emphasized patents in the first State of the Union Address, where he noted the importance of giving “effectual encouragement” to inventions. Soon after the speech, a Congressional committee was established to draft a patent law. On April 10, 1790, the first patent act was passed by Congress. With this step, Congress fulfilled its constitutional mandate to “promote the progress of sciences and the useful arts” by securing legal rights to “authors and inventors.”   Most importantly, copyrights and patents thereafter became rights subject to legal protections, rather than subjects of imperial decree.

Abraham Lincoln famously was the only president to have secured a patent. He was also, I believe, the only president to have been engaged in patent prosecution and litigation. Lincoln was personally interested in all improvements to the “useful arts” including those involving military technology. Patents, he argued, added the “fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

Although considerably less florid than Lincoln, in 1979, Deng Xiaoping addressed the political divisions over whether China should have an intellectual property system, by noting that “It is better to have a patent system” (as quoted by Duan Ruichun). IP thereafter became an important part of China’s economic reform as China emerged from the Cultural Revolution. During the ensuing years, he believed that controversies over IP were due in part to a lack of understanding of the IP system and he encouraged more training and education of IP specialists. Later, during a 1992 Southern Tour, he asked details of IP management of companies he visited, and advocated for conformity with international practice.

Had Deng met George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and the topics of patents came up, I suspect that they all would have agreed that an IP system, based on property rights, was necessary for a country to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” particularly at times when their countries desperately needed to spur innovation to address seemingly insurmountable political, economic and military challenges.

Photo: From George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia (near USPTO).

 

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