O’Reilly v. Morse


O’Reilly v. Morse (1854) is a famous patent case. It is relied on by Justices and judges, discussed by scholars, and taught to students. Everyone agrees it was correctly decided: Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion stopped Samuel Morse’s attempt to control all telecommunication technologies with a patent that went far beyond his invented telegraph and encompassed modern email, fax machines and text messages. This conventional wisdom, however, is profoundly mistaken. It fails to account for the historical context in which Morse invented, patented, commercialized and ultimately was swept up in massive litigation over his innovative telegraph.

This paper corrects this anachronism by reinserting this full historical context back into our understanding of Morse. It details the invention and innovative commercial development of the telegraph, and it reveals that Chief Justice Taney’s opinion was not a sterling exemplar of patent law. Similar to his decisions in constitutional law and in other patent cases, Chief Justice Taney ignored established patent doctrines and instead decided the case on the basis of his own political biases. As a fervent Jacksonian Democrat, Chief Justice Taney viewed patents as state-granted monopolies, and not as property rights in technological innovation. It is only a happy accident for him that his judicial activism in O'Reilly v. Morse comported with much-later changes in patent law that made his opinion appear correct to our modern eyes — unlike Chief Justice Taney’s similar twisting of established law in Dred Scott to reach a result similarly dictated by his personal political preferences.