The Patent Act of 1793

Recently, I was looking for more information on the state granted business monopoly (business method??)  that was at the heart of the dispute in Gibbons v. Ogden when I ran across the book Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic.   The author, Thomas H. Cox, recounts the legislative process for the Patent Act of 1793:

The Patent Act of 1790 appeared simple, but in practice, it proved unworkable.  Many inventors complained that federal patents were expensive, hard to obtain, impossible to enforce, and limited in scope. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson condemned the very concept of patents as antidemocratic. In truth, he  and his colleagues lacked the time to review applications. On February 4, 1791, Jefferson lobbied Congress to revise existing U.S. patent law. Three days later, he submitted a bill that made the application process more costly and timeconsuming.  Specifically, the bill required an applicant to petition the secretary of state for a warrant that testified to the usefulness of the invention. After paying a fee directly to the treasury, the inventor then had to register with every U.S. federal district court and publish notices of the invention three times in a major paper in each of those districts to warn away other competitors.

While Jefferson drafted the bill, the Patent Board reviewed requests from John Fitch, James Rumsey, Henry Read, and John Stevens. To avoid confrontations, the board canceled a hearing with the inventors and urged them to wait for the passage of the new patent bill, which was before Congress at the time. Fitch protested the bill, stating he “had no idea that he must go all the way from Kentucky to Cape Cod, and quite the Distance of Province of Main[e] to publish his inventions, and to pay out large fees wherever he goes for the same.” For once on the same side as Fitch, Joseph Barnes published a polemic that condemned Jefferson’s bill for favoring European technological discoveries over American inventive genius. Despite Barnes’s strong words, the ever-wary Fitch suspected Jefferson and Rumsey of collusion to keep him from developing a steamboat franchise.

Jefferson resubmitted his bill to Congress early in March 1792. The measure now required an applicant to register with the secretary of state, pay a fee, and provide a short description and model of the invention. The inventor, however, still had to file and register the patent in every judicial district in the United States. The new bill also allowed an offender to claim ignorance of the law or irrelevancy of the patent in question as valid defenses. It specified that patents were the private, intellectual property of their owners and that the public would not be allowed to view related documents until the originals expired. In addition, the bill asserted that federal patents trumped any state licenses granted before the

ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, applicants had to be American citizens.

When Congress reconvened in January 1793, it appointed a committee, chaired by Hugh Williamson, to consider Jefferson’s bill. The following month, the bill passed both houses of Congress to become the Patent Act of 1793. In 1800, Congress revised the act to allow resident aliens to apply and to set heavy fines for those who infringed on patent rights.  However, like its predecessor, the revised act allowed applicants to secure patents for inventions regardless of how similar their discoveries might  be. Fitch, Rumsey, Read, and Stevens quickly secured federal patents for their steamboats under the new federal guidelines. However, realizing the worthlessness of such documents, the inventors quickly turned to the states to protect their work.


 Gibbons v. Ogden, Law and Society in the Early Republic, Ohio University Press-Swallow Press, 2009 at pp. 14-15.

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