Mark Lemley

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Lemley Responds: Defending the Myth of the Sole Inventor

If you actually read my article you will find that I simply don’t say the things they claim I say. The basic refrain of the Howells-Katznelson paper is that (1) I think Edison and the Wright brothers didn’t make inventive contributions, and (2) I diminish their contributions in service of my “radical” anti-patent agenda. With all due respect, I don’t see how anyone who read the whole paper could think I said any such thing. There is no question that Edison and the Wrights made useful contributions to the world. The point of my article is that they (and the many other iconic inventors I discuss) did not act alone. They made important but incremental contributions on the shoulders of many other inventors advancing the technology, and they often did so at about the same time as other, lesser-known inventors.

The Myth of the Sole Inventor

The canonical story of the lone genius inventor is largely a myth. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he found a bamboo fiber that worked better as a filament in the light bulb developed by Sawyer and Man, who in turn built on lighting work done by others. Bell filed for his telephone patent on the very same day as an independent inventor, Elisha Gray; the case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which filled an entire volume of U.S. Reports resolving the question of whether Bell could have a patent despite the fact that he hadn’t actually gotten the invention to work at the time he filed. The Wright Brothers were the first to fly at Kitty Hawk, but their plane didn’t work very well, and was quickly surpassed by aircraft built by Glenn Curtis and others – planes that the Wrights delayed by over a decade with patent lawsuits.