19th Century Congressional Extensions of Patents

Under the Patent Act of 1836, a patent had a 14-year initial term, and could be renewed for seven more years by the Commissioner of Patents.1  In theory, that would be the end of the matter, but in practice the inventor would sometimes petition Congress for a further 7-year extension.  While doing some research in the National Archives on an unrelated project2 I found a number of these, and scanned them using CamScanner.

The impetus for posting them now is Sean O’Connor’s excellent new article Origins of Patent Exhaustion: Jacksonian Politics, ‘Patent Farming,’ and the Basis of the Bargain.  His article includes extensive discussion of the litigation over the patent received by William Woodworth in 1828 for an improved wood-planing machine, which in addition to receiving a Congressional extension in 1845, was the subject of two Supreme Court Cases – Wilson v. Rousseau, 45 U.S. 646 (1846) and Bloomer v. McQuewan, 55 U.S. 539 (1852) – both concerning the effect of extension on assignments.3 Until 1843, Woodworth entered into a cross-licensing agreement with Uri Emmons, who patented a similar wood planing machine in 1829 (patents were not examined under the pre-1836 system).  However in 1843 the Comissioner of Patents did not renew the Emmons patent, leaving the market to Woodworth.  With the Congressional extension of the Woodworth patent set to expire in 1856, the heirs of Uri Emmons petitioned congress to revive the Emmons patent for a seven year term, an action that was not successful so far as I can tell.  However their petition is fascinating, including examples of renewals of expired patents by Congress and other oddities of term that would likely not be tolerated today.  My scan of their petition is here.

An even more famous patent is that received by Samuel Morse for the telegraph,whose legal journey has been written about extensively by Adam Mossoff.  Morse received a patent for his invention in 1840, which was extended to 1861 by the Commissioner of Patents.  In 1860 Morse lobbied Congress for a further 7-year extension of his patent, but it does not appear it was granted.  In support of his application Morse filed a hand-written petition, a copy of his brief from 1854, and a newly-produced brief by Charles Mason written in support of the extension.  I have uploaded these documents to Archive.org here.  Also included was the Decision of the Comissioner of Patents approving the extension of Morse’s 1846 patent for improvements to the telegraph, which has been reproduced elsewhere.

Finally, I’ve included a petition by William Atchinson attempting to reclaim patents for rubber he had assigned away by purposes of a Congressional extension here.

  1. The National Archives has a list of all requests for renewal filed with the Patent Office, which I’ve uploaded here: Patent Extension List.
  2. Specifically, I was doing a little sleuthing for Brian Frye for what would become his article about slavery and patent law for a coming symposium.
  3. There’s more information on the Woodworth patent and machine here.

Author: Zvi S. Rosen

Lawyer and sometimes academic. I've written a fair deal about the evolution of intellectual property law into its present form, this blog is a way to share things that don't fit into a full-length article.

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