Howells & Katznelson

Recent Articles by Rebuttal Finale: A Response to Lemley’s Myth of the Sole Inventor

Rebuttal Finale: A Response to Lemley’s Myth of the Sole Inventor

Lemley’s response introduces the new term “sequential improvement.” This suggests to us that he has now abandoned many of his claims of “simultaneous invention.” The word ‘sequential’ does not occur a single time in his article. We agree with Lemley’s new description that invention and innovation are often sequential, building in a series of related but different inventions: it is a normal feature of development and does not require a 108 page and 260 footnote article to establish it. Nor does it have radical policy consequences for the patent system which is well-adapted to this feature of real invention. But Lemley’s recommended policy would deny patents to second comers who contribute the key missing ingredient that unlocks an entire field. To Lemley’s credit, he recognizes the benefits of patent races and that the patent system leads to more innovation. But if that is true, Lemley does not explain why the patent system that we actually have is broken. His proposal to deny patents on “the most important inventions” and not grant more patents seems to flow from unreliable scholarship rather than a precise, reliable diagnosis of a problem.

A Critique of Mark Lemley’s “The Myth of the Sole Inventor”

For example, regarding Thomas Edison, Lemley’s primary case illustrating the so-called “myth of the sole inventor,” he alleges that “Sawyer and Man invented and patented the incandescent light bulb” (Lemley 2011, p26) and that “Edison did not invent the light bulb in any meaningful sense” (Lemley 2011, p25). We disprove Lemley’s assertions and present five key facts that Lemley omits: for example, although Lemley cites a Supreme Court case in 1895 as a source for the statement above, he neglects to inform us of the decision reported in that case; it affirmed a lower court’s 1889 decision in favor of Edison and finding the Sawyer & Man patent invalid. Furthermore, the Sawyer and Man lamps were not commercially viable, having only a few hours life, whereas Edison’s invention was the basis for a lamp with a hundred times longer useful lifetime: electric lighting became economic and it was Edison’s invention that unlocked the field after three decades of experimentation by others in incandescent lamps. There was no candidate for an invention simultaneous with Edison’s invention.