Patents as Commercial Assets in Political, Legal, and Social Context


This essay, which was solicited for a special book review issue of the Tulsa Law Review, discusses Christopher Beachamp’s Invented by Law: Alexander Graham Bell and the Patent that Changed the World (Harvard University Press, 2015). Beauchamp tells the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, patenting, commercialization and litigation of the telephone. But his monograph does much more than this: it details the complex commercial, legal, social, and political contexts in which patented innovation functions as a commercial asset.

This essay examines the extensive historical details presented in Invented by Law in the context of today’s “smartphone war” — the patent war wrought by the wireless computing revolution. Professor Beauchamp brings much-needed historical data to a debate in which many commentators assert that patent licensing, complex uses of patents in multi-component products, and extensive litigation are allegedly new features of the high-tech economy arising from the digital revolution. Invented by Law disabuses anyone of this false belief. Beauchamp explicates how complex inventions driving innovation in business models, as well as widespread licensing of patents, were common features of the nineteenth-century innovation economy. More generally, Invented by Law presents a fascinating historical case study of technological and commercial innovation, litigation, and ensuing public policy debate in Congress and in the country at large. As the Cylons intoned in Sy Fy Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” — a theme about patented innovation convincingly presented by Beauchamp in Invented by Law as well.