Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Queen Mary Studies in Intellectual Property series
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 11: Patenting the atom: The controversial management of state secrecy and intellectual property rights in atomic research
Does the combined management of state secrecy and intellectual property rights present a fundamental contradiction? This is the impression that one gathers from an analysis of the 1946 U.S. Senate Committee Enquiry on Atomic Energy. During one of the hearings, Robert Lavender, a leading officer of the atom bomb project codenamed Manhattan, reported to the committee’s chairman, Senator Brien McMahon, about the project’s patent policy. The officer informed the bewildered senator and the other befuddled eight commissioners that the details of the most secret wartime discoveries and inventions regarding atomic energy (including those on the atom bomb) were described in patent applications. The revelation unnerved the senator. ‘I didn’t dream, frankly, that there was a patent application down there showing how the bomb was put together,’ he pointed out (Anon., 1946: 11). Lavender’s decision to guard these secrets through conventional means of intellectual property protection seemed to defy the basic principles of security and McMahon wondered if these undisclosed details could fall into the hands of those who regularly visited the Patent Office. Scandalmongers such as the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, John Parnell Thomas, readied to attack. From the pages of The American magazine, he accused the director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), David H. Lilienthal, of letting the Soviets know about America’s atomic secrets by making them accessible at the U.S. Patent Office (Hewlett and Duncan, 1969: 89). Why did Lavender and his assistants file patent applications using classified information concerning the exploitation of atomic energy? Wasn’t it bizarre?
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