Scientific American, v 78 (ns) no 2, p 19, 8 January 1898
Edison on Patents
Thomas A. Edison has taken out probably more patents, says the New York Sun, than any other inventor. He owes his fortune and his fame to some of them; he has lost greater fortune and perhaps greater fame because he was not able to protect his rights in others. Naturally his knowledge of patent practice is extended, and when he talks of invention as a profession he speaks by the card.
"The value of a patent," says the inventor, "diminishes in the ratio at which the value of the thing patented decreases. That is to say, if a man gets up a patent on a wrench, that patent has a real value and may be profitable; but if he gets up a patent on a system which revolutionizes things and is of tremendous value to the world at large, that patent is not valuable to the inventor, on account of the procedure of the court.
"In a great many cases, outside of mechanical things, the trade secret is more valued as a protection than a patent. Dishonest persons often can get the inner track of an important discovery or patent, and make use of it illegally, while the inventor may never realize anything on his work, although he may spend thousands of dollars and continue the fight for years. Yes, the value to the inventor of a patent increases just as its value to the public decreases; the reward for his services increases with the lack of value of the patent. There is less reward than ever for the industrious inventor.
"One of my biggest inventions, for which patents were asked years ago, has just been declared mine by law. Meanwhile other men have been and are using it and are deriving the financial benefit, all on account of the workings of the patent system. Of course, I can sue them, but it will be a long time before I can do anything. In short, there is comparatively little reward for the inventor of the important machine. A trade secret is of value in the chemical line, for there it can be guarded. For instance, in the case of Bessemer of Bessemer steel fame. He made his money by making bronze powder by a secret process, and kept the secret in the family for years before it was finally given out to the world. As with the small patent, the small trade secret has the advantage in holding the market and keeping the device from being stolen. Get up trivial inventions of minor importance and they are valuable.
"Infringers of patents take advantage of the practice of the United States Supreme Court. If you get out a patent which is likely to become valuable to the public at large, you will find that it will sooner or later be infringed upon. If it were possible to get an injunction immediately against an infringer all would be well, but you cannot do this. When you start up, the other fellow sails right in and begins manufacturing and selling just as you do, and generally at a lower price. You cannot do anything in court for five or six years, and the infringer knows this. After having spent a large amount of money and time in inventing your patent, you place the price of it to the public at a figure which will, you think, reimburse you for your expenditure. The infringer does not have to meet any of these expenditures and can therefore afford to sell far below your price. A lawsuit for you is a costly matter; for him it is comparatively a trifle. For instance, in order to prove your patents you have got to make researches, you have got to have expert drawings made, and there are numberless other expenses which eat up profits. All the infringer has to do is to employ a lawyer who is noted for causing delays in court. Every time your case comes up he attempts to delay it, and generally succeeds. Meantime, you are manufacturing at a loss, while the infringer is manufacturing at a profit.
"If after five or six years you prove to the court that you are rightfully entitled to the invention, there is but one thing left to you -- to attack your opponent's factory. At this point you will awake to the fact that he has no factory. You will find that the machinery has been rented, or else it is in the name of his wife, or that he has an irresponsible company made up of his employee or of his family, and when finally you swoop down upon him all you can find in his office is a desk and a chair. He can still run the shop machinery and give more trouble, and in the end there is not only no reward for the inventor, but absolute loss. It takes time to pioneer all new things. After you talk to the public, other people see that you have a good thing and organize irresponsible factories. You have, perhaps, spent $100,000 for machinery, tools, etc., then along comes the other fellow, without any responsibility, and makes all the money he can before you are able to get judgment against him.
"The laws are all right and don't need revision. It is not the laws. The Patent Office is all right, too. There is no corruption there. It all lies with the power and practice of the United States Supreme Court. Years ago they would grant an injunction on the face of the patent. The patentee had better rights. Now they don't, and that is what is driving every good man out of the business, or driving him into details, because they are safe. If you get up a wrench, there is not the danger of another man coming in and spending $200,000 or $300,000 fighting you on a thing which don't pay you $5,000.
"The operations of patent sharks sometimes compel an inventor to obtain patents for articles which are never meant to be placed on the market. A fellow often gets up a machine, and somebody else comes along, and by getting patents through for certain parts, can give the inventor a great deal of bother and make him pay well, even if the inventor gets control of it. A man ought to patent every part of his machine which he intends to use, so that he will have a bona fide claim to use it and cannot be infringed by other inventors. The inventor should first patent the principal parts and improvements, then patent the variations and completed model, to protect himself in the courts of law. In short, as I said before, the value of a patent to an inventor is directly decreased as the value to the public increases. The practice of the United States Circuit Court is such as to drive all the inventors away from revolutionizing inventions into little details."