America’s First Patent Thicket: Sewing Machine War of the 1850s
The story of the invention and development of the sewing machine challenges these two assumptions insofar as it is a story of a patent thicket in an extremely old technology, but, more important, it is a story of the successful resolution of this thicket through a private-ordering mechanism. The Sewing Machine War was not brought to an end by new federal laws, lawsuits by public interest organizations, or new regulations at the Patent Office, but rather by the patent owners exercising their rights of use and disposition in their property. In so doing, they created the Sewing Machine Combination, which successfully coordinated their overlapping property claims until its last patent expired in 1877. Moreover, the Sewing Machine War is a salient case study because this mid- nineteenth-century patent thicket also included many related issues that are often intertwined today with concerns about modern patent thickets, such as a non- practicing entity (i.e., a “patent troll”) suing infringers after his demands for royalty payments were rejected, massive litigation between multiple parties and in multiple venues, costly prior art searches, and even a hard-fought priority battle over who was the first inventor of the lockstitch.