Abstract: Patents, Markets, and Discontent in Late Nineteenth Century America

Steven Wilf


From the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s, a particular culture of patents emerged in the United States which combined a political economy of citizenship, anxieties about the power of industrial combinations, and contention about whether patents represented the public virtue of technological innovation or the private vice of monopoly. Focusing upon the introduction of patent enforcement to a new market—the American Midwest—the paper examines how both courts and ordinary citizens responded to inclusion within the framework of intellectual property protection. This historical moment was prompted by an onslaught of harassing infringement suits concerning barbed wire, fencing, and wells, and established a movement against patent law that became a major political issue in the agricultural midwestern states beginning in the 1880s. Farmers organized under the larger agrarian movement of the Grange. Activists deluged Congress with petitions, proposed legislation to limit the ability of patent holders to sue, and created legal defense funds. Prairie populism mixed with a campaign against patent misuse. This paper excavates competing business models for late nineteenth century patents. Sometimes patents were seen as favoring those with economic and knowledge resources, sometimes as a meritocratic, leveling enterprise. A variety of proposed radical reforms such as the immunization of innocent infringers against law suits, severe reduction of the patent term, and the establishing of a bundle of rights for patent emerged from newly created anti-patent networks. Does the call for the abolition or the significant weakening of patent protection relate to other late nineteenth-century responses to business? Or is intellectual property anomalous? The patent wars—the late nineteenth-century prairie agrarian revolt against intellectual property—underscore the unease experienced by those unwillingly included in intellectual property business and legal frameworks.