Anticipate This!™ | Patent and Trademark Law Blog

President’s Day 2008 and the Abraham Lincoln Patent.

Posted in General Commentary by Jake Ward on February 18, 2008

The third Monday in February is President’s Day – a federal holiday honoring all who have served as U.S. President, and particularly, President Washington and President Lincoln (two notable presidents having had birthdays in February). 


President Lincoln also has the distinction of being the only president to have been issued a patent (U.S. Pat. No. 6469:  Buoying vessels over shoals).  The claim from the Lincoln patents is reproduced below:


Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of patent laws to fostering invention.  He has been quoted as saying that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” He also reportedly once called the introduction of patent laws one of the three most important developments “in the world’s history,” along with the discovery of America and the perfection of printing.

2 Responses

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  1. anonymous said, on February 19, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Regarding your recent post about Abraham Lincoln – his view on the Bilski en banc appeal would be interesting.

    Does an invention require a technological aspect to it? Is an invention, as In re Comiskey contends, required to be “embodied in, operated on, transforms, or otherwise involve a machine, manufacture, or composition of matter”? (See Comiskey at 17)

    In Lincoln’s Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, he considers “phonetic writing” as one of the greatest “inventions” of mankind (i.e. the concept of associating symbols, such as the alphabet, with phonetic sounds – a great improvement over the prior art of clumsy picture writing).

    Lincoln considered “phonetic writing” a great “invention”. Would it have warranted a patent?

    At least in Lincoln’s own words the term “invention” per se, had no technical/physical connotation to it. Lincoln also refers to phonetic writing as having “utility”.

  2. Jake Ward said, on February 19, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    I take the view that an “invention” is made any time one solves a problem. Not all inventions are patentable, however, such as inventions that have been invented before (novelty), or those that are not an inventive advance over the prior art (obviousness). Laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are also clearly out-of-bounds.

    That being said, processes are clearly patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The holding of Comiskey appeared to unnecessarily value form over substance in requiring steps of a process be tied in some form to a machine to be patentable. As a practitioner, the broader State Street Bank standard (stating that a process is patentable as long as it produces “a useful, concrete and tangible result”) is certainly more desirable – after all, why should an otherwise novel, useful, and nonobvious process with a real-world application have to be tied to a physical medium to be patentable? I have not heard an acceptable answer to this question.

    Would Lincoln have thought similarly? I would like to think so. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court pendulum appears to have started swinging in the anti-patent “Douglas era” direction. My guess would be that the courts will continue to require some physical manifestation of the process to deem it patentable, i.e., machine-implemented, physical outcomes, etc., if for no other reason than it creates a bright line between unpatentable abstract ideas and patentable processes. My thoughts.

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