IP, technology, human rights

New light from an old source

Posted by Lea on July 20, 2010

I’m working now on a new project, which takes the historic litigation around the light bulb as an entry point to shed new light on the impact of patents upon innovation and access to new technologies.

Image of four light bulbs, in Pop Art style

Thanks to Zetson for the CC-licensed image, via Flickr

More than a century after its introduction, the light bulb remains the defining icon of invention.

Justifiably so, in my opinion, because this widget almost single-handedly drove the demand for electrification.

The light bulb was the “killer app” for electric power, which in turn brought about a new era of technological innovation.

Contrary to popular wisdom, however, Edison’s team was merely one of dozens that co-invented electric light bulb.

Scientifically speaking, his team’s discoveries were neither the first, nor the most important.

What Edison did better than all the other inventors took place not in the laboratory, but in the law office.

His lawyers pursued, obtained, asserted, and litigated key patents on light bulb technology in order to run competing bulb manufacturers out of business or buy them up.

Cover Page to Edison's History Patent Application on the Light Bulb

Image provided by the National Archives at http://www.ourdocuments.gov

Scientists had already published instructions for producing a glowing electric bulb in 1709. The more discerning biographers claim not that Edison invented the bulb, but that his laboratory developed improvements that made it commercially viable.

Conflicting sources indicate, however, that the technology was already commercially viable in 1876. A few years later, London’s Savoy Theatre switched from gas lighting to electric bulbs supplied by Joseph Swan.

It was at this point, in 1879, that Edison filed for his first patent on “an improvement in Electric Lamps and in the method of manufacturing the same.” The improvement Edison claimed was the use of a certain type of filament inside the bulb.

Edison then leveraged his monopoly on bulbs to corner the market in electricity service as well. Over a century later, General Electric is the longest-running member of the Dow Jones industrial average.

For example, Thomas Swan had light bulb patents of his own, the first predating Edison’s by 19 years. He had even been granted a patent in England claiming the same discovery Edison’s team claimed to have made.

But he was unable to retain the legal upper hand. Even though it was never legally established that Swan’s bulbs infringed on Edison’s patents, the shadow of IP law made it too risky for Swan to continue competing. The two companies merged.

In the process, competition in the light bulb market – and therefore the race to roll out improvements and cut prices – was severely curtailed. And a half century would pass before ordinary Americans could afford electric lights.

In theory, patents promote innovation by providing greater incentives to invention. But it can also work the other way, by erecting legal barriers to follow-on innovation.

The result is a paradoxical delay in scientific advancement, widespread access to new technologies, and opportunities for new businesses and opportunities that build upon that technology.

The effort to discern whether patent protection is a net positive or negative for innovation and economic growth continues to confound economic and legal scholars.

Economists have sought to address the question through cross-national empirical studies correlating patent terms with macroeconomic results, with little in the way of conclusive results.

Methodologically, I suggest that case studies of the impact of patent law on innovation and growth with respect to a particular technology or sector – such as electricity – can be more illuminating.

These closer examinations permit researchers to tease out the complicated effects of intellectual property law, in ways that can inform later quantitative research.

Although much has been written about what the Internet has to teach us about intellectual property and innovation, the story of the lightbulb – a similarly revolutionary technological development – so far remains in the shadows.

For more on these ideas, check out an earlier post at the blog of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, my speech at the Yale ISP’s spring 2010 conference on Access to Knowledge and Human Rights or my article from the Wisconsin Law Review entitled The Right to Science and Culture.

2 Responses to “New light from an old source”

  1. How refreshing to read a balanced analysis of the effect of IP and copyright protection on innovation.

  2. I hope you will consult the Edison Papers at Rutgers!

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