MESSRS. EDITORS—I have noticed from time to time that you have taken very strong ground against the extension of certain patents by act of Congress, and I am at a loss to know how you can reconcile this opposition with your professions of regard for the rights and interests of inventors. You do not pretend to deny that McCormick, Colt, Goodyear, Chaffee, and Sickles are ingenious men, and that they are the original inventors of what they have respectively patented. Now why in the name of right and justice are they not entitled to all the protection that they have solicited? W. [In the first place, we are opposed to the extension of patents by Congress on the grounds of national policy and public morals. The chief parliament of a nation should seldom, if ever, be engaged in legislating for private parties and personal bills. Such bills, upon the sound principles of political ethics, should be left to the operation of general laws. Partial legislation ever has been—and ever will be—attended by corruption in every country where it has been practised. Those who seek for favors of this character never scruple to pmploy the most plausible means to gain their objects. They may not, and dare not, openly 1 hold out the glittering bribe; but the feast and the present, and the power and influence of flattery are always brought to bear upon those whose favor is sought to be secured. When this same Colt's patent was previously before Congress, in 1855, for its extension, it was made evident that the most insidious influences were brought to bear upon Members to get the bill passed. It may be said: "Our Members of Congress are honorable men and above pollution by such temptations." This may be; but until they place themselves beyond the reach of such influences and temptations, they never will be above suspicion. The ancient republic of Athens—once the purest and most noble on the face of the earth —sunk into a mass of bloated corruption by the perversion of legislation to private ends instead of public benefits. Her history speaks to us in a voice of warning. We also consider it wrong for Congress to legislate upon private bills, such as the extension of patents, when there is a general law in existence to meet all cases that are properly the subjects of its protecting power. Our present patent law provides for the extension of patents for seven years after the expiration of the first term, when the, patentees are not sufficiently remunerated. The term of fourteen years, we consider, is sufficiently long to permit patentees generally to obtain a respectable remuneration, under a circumspect management of their business. When patents are allowed to exist for a longer term, they tend, in many cases, to retard improvements and defeat the very objects for which the patent laws were enacted. A patented invention may be admirable in principle, but its manufacture may be confined to certain parties who make very inferior articles. When it becomes public property, and not till then, the public begin to obtain the benefits which should flow from it. By the competition engendered in its general manufacture, a manifest improvement, both in the materials employed and in the mechanical details of its construction, is the inevitable results. We do not deny that the inventions of the patentees mentioned by our correspondent were original and useful—indeed vastly so —but why should partial legislation be employed for them any more than for other equally meritorious inventors, or for all other American inventors, whatever? The same reasons advanced in favor of one can be presented in favor of all. If Congress takes up the private bill of one patentee whose patent has e2q)ired, in order to extend it as a question of "right and justice," then, upon the very same principles, a retro- ipective bill should be passed, extending everif jxpired patent. Is Colt, or Goodyear, or Chaffee, or Sickles made up of any better clay ihan hundreds of other patentees whose patents aave expired without being extended? But we have been opposed to nearly all those patents sought to be extended by Congress during the past f ew years, because the parties seeking the extensions had nearly all become wealthy, or were so well established :n a lucrative business that they did not- require the extensions. Some of these patents bave also cost the country an enormous imount of money. The Colt case. has been before Congress since 1855 ; and although defeated, and thrust out again and again, it has Impertinently returned to the attack, and has 3mployed no stinted means to secure its object. There are 296 Members of Congress, and it is fair to presume that, with the time spent in committees and in Congressional sessions on these private bills, they (the bills) have cost the country at least half a million of dollars. The people have become disgusted with such schemes; they tend to engender a prejudice against inventows as being a selfish class, whereas, nothing can be further from the truth in regard to their character generally. We have a duty to perform to inventors and the public*; and the position we have taken in reference to the extension of patents by Congress is intended to benefit both. If we were to consult personal considerations alone, we should pursue a different course in reference to some of the cases herein spoken of. Our independent course upon certain patent extension cases has cost us some profitable friendships, and may cost us still more ; but we cannot be deterred from doing our duty by any such considerations.
This article was originally published with the title "Why we Oppose the Extension of Patents" in Scientific American 13, 35, 277 (May 1858)