Mossoff on the Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket

Josh Wright —  29 April 2009

My colleague Adam Mossoff is blogging over at the Volokh Conspiracy on his fascinating paper, A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket. Here’s an excerpt from the first post:

The debate centers on whether patent thicket theory accurately explains or predicts such problems in practice, and the empirical studies produced thus far are arguably in equipoise. In speaking about anticommons theory, Professor Heller acknowledges that “the empirical studies that prove — or disprove — our theory remain inconclusive.” Nonetheless, in the patent literature and in the popular press, vivid anecdotes abound about patent thickets obstructing development of new drugs or preventing the distribution of life-enhancing genetically engineered foods to the developing world.

Given the heightened interest today amongst scholars and lawyers concerning the existence and policy significance of patent thickets, a historical analysis of the sewing machine patent thicket in the 1850s — called the “Sewing Machine War” at the time — and the denouement of this patent thicket in the Sewing Machine Combination of 1856 is important.

On one hand, it is an empirical case study of a patent thicket that (temporarily) prevented the commercial development of an important product of the Industrial Revolution. The sewing machine was the result of numerous incremental and complementary inventive contributions, which led to a morass of patent infringement litigation given overlapping patent claims to the final commercial product. The Sewing Machine War thus confirms that patent thickets exist, and that they can lead to what Professor Heller has identified as the tragedy of the anticommons.  On the other hand, the story of the sewing machine challenges some underlying assumptions in the current discourse about patent thickets.

The posts and the paper are highly recommended material for TOTM readers interested in issues involving IP and antitrust.