What Is A Patent?
Henry L. T. Tideman
[Reprinted from The Freeman, January, 1939]
They named it the Temporary National Economic Committee. A news item
states that in turning from an abstract consideration of the nation's
economy to specific cases "the committee is hearing leaders of
American industry on the possibility of monopolistic practices growing
out of our policy of issuing patents to inventors."
It is conceded that a patent is a grant of monopoly. Without
monopolistic practices it will avail its holder nothing. Politicians,
it would seem, are a band of men who can stare fixedly at a fact and
then proceed to the organization of a commiittee to question the
existence of that fact.
What is the object of invention? Is it not to increase the production
of wealth, to reduce the toil and trouble Incident to our daily life?
What is the purpose of a patent? To permit its holder to prevent the
production of wealth in the manner incident to the patent except upon
such terms as he may concede.
As for the policy of rewarding inventors with patents by giving them
control over the commerce in their inventions, whatever thesis may be
maintained with specious plausibility for that policy in the distant
past before the laws of physics were as well understood as they now
are, no such argument can be held for the grant of patents in the
In the mechanical field it is safe to say that discovery is limited
to the astronomical and the ultra-microscopic. If a machine is desired
for any purpose it is necessary merely to state what is desired. It
will be designed. That is what engineers are for. Illustrative of this
fact we may mention the cigarette making machine. A factory in which
cigarettes are made by hand labor must sell its products in
competition with cigars and pipe tobacco. The cost of cigarettes is so
high that the market is necessarily restricted to a few prosperous
customers. So the cigarette making machine gets into evolution. The
first machines were partial developments. An improvement here, an
addition there, and then a consolidation of the various parts and the
public is invited to see a machine which rolls the cigarettes,
manufactures wrappers, wraps the wrappers and affixes labels almost
faster than the eyes can observe.
Here is no discovery, no mystery unveiled. It is merely the result of
thought and the knowledge of mechanics. Paid for their work, thousands
of men will solve the problem in hundreds of ways.
What caused the invention, if invention it be called? Was it the hope
of affluence by securing patients and restricting the cigarette
industry? Was not the competition for the cigarette market a much more
Patents may have been the source of some moderate fortunes. They may
add occasionally to the dividends of great corporations; but is it not
at the expense of their neighbors? And in the main, does not the
prosperity of business men depend upon their ability to meet the
competition of their rivals for public favor rather than upon legally
granted monopolies? And is not this competition beneficial to the
"But," and the objector rises, "think of the great
research laboratories of our large corporations and their wonderful
work. To abolish the patent giving policy would remove the incentive
for this activity." On the contrary, if the field for competition
be kept open, the necessity for keeping abreast in the race foe trade
will make these activities greater than ever.
One has but to observe the changes in the styles and the improvements
in the automobile, during the last decade, made in spite of many
grants of patents to the makers of the machinery used in their
manufacture, to note the still greater possibilities of free
competition. In the interplay of economic forces, new methods of
production will arise with every new demand for things -- and no
monopoly incentive is necessary.
How about the morality oil patents? No one need deny that the produce
Of an inventor is his own. He need not use it nor disclose it to
others, if he wishes to be a miser with the product of his talents
none can question his act. But surely the fact that he makes a
discovery or designs a useful tool cannot give him the right to
prevent his neighbor from profiting by doing likewise.
A legal arrangement which seeks to promote progress by any other
process than an extension of, freedom is suspect from its origin.
Given freedom, the fundamental law that "man seeks to gratify his
desires by the least exertion" will automatically produce
progress; for in attempting to serve himself every man will serve his
fellow man, to the end of an ever increasing prosperity for all.