Friday, April 13, 2012

Confederate patent law

In 1857, Oscar Stuart applied for a patent for an improved plow, invented by his slave Ned. The U.S. Patent Office denied his application on the grounds that Ned, the inventor, was not a citizen, while Stuart, the slave owner and citizen, was not the inventor. The following year, Joseph Davis (brother of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis) applied for a patent for a ship's propeller, invented by his slave Benjamin Montgomery. Like Stuart's application, the patent office denied this one also.

In 1861, the Confederate Congress established a patent office. The Confederate patent law specified that a slave owner could receive a patent for inventions by his or her slave. Here's the statute.

Between 1861 and 1865, 266 patents were issued. Yet, Benjamin Montgomery was again denied a patent for his propeller in 1864 by the Confederate patent office. Unfortunately, almost all of the records of the patent office were lost when Richmond was captured in April 1865.

What relevance does Confederate patent law have to either race in America or patent law today? I can't see any relevance, but I still think it's interesting.

Brian Sawers

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Certainly the history of IP in America is very closely tied to race in many ways, from the appropriation of the blues and jazz to the critical role trademarks played in perpetuating racial stereotypes. The lessons of these phenomena have relevance to a broad variety of issues, such as, for example, the call in some academic quaters to return to copyright formalities. My work has shown that copyright formalities, particularly under the 1909 Act, in part facilitated the fleecing of African-American blues artists. A return to restrictive formalities could prove harmful to folks simiarly situated at the bottom of the social order.

Posted by: K.J. Greene | Apr 17, 2012 7:46:27 PM

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