Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 5: Collective invention and patent law individualism, 1877–2012 – or, the curious persistence of the inventor’s moral right
Why do inventors continue to be named in patents when most are owned by firms rather than individuals? And what role, if any, does inventor-naming play in the management of intellectual property rights? This chapter seeks answers. Why should the persistence of the named inventors be worthy of attention? Because in certain respects it appears quite anomalous. The slow demise of the true and first inventor has been noted for decades, in some cases approvingly. As early as 1941, Charles Kettering of General Motors commented that ‘a one-man invention isn’t very possible these days’, and opined that it would be unfair to single out individuals for collective attainments (quoted in Owens, 1991; see also, Noble, 1977). However, even before then the trend was becoming evident. The downgrading of the inventor from the status of autonomous genius to semi-anonymous team player in the employ of others, and a cog in a much bigger innovation ‘wheel’, is evident, for example, in the 1877 German Patent Law. This legislation heralded the first-to-file (as opposed to first-to-invent) principle, which is now the global norm. By favouring large businesses with their own scientific workers, this was in part strategic. But it was justified by the argument that modern inventions were collectively achieved and depended primarily on capital investment in laboratories, equipment and skilled employees (Gispen, 1989: 265). The second industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, pioneered largely by Germany and the U.S., is associated with a number of phenomena favouring more collective – and potentially anonymous – conceptions of the inventive act, and a diminished autonomy for inventors.
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