Thursday, November 17, 2005

Father of the Automobile: George Selden?

Who invented the modern automobile? Ford? Daimler? How about George Selden? The USPTO issued him a patent on the technology in 1895, and he used it to extract royalties against all car makers for years -- even though he had never built an automobile himself.

Selden won an initial judgement when Henry Ford tried to challenge the patent. Selden's holding company then went so far as to advertise warnings in the press, claiming that by buying a Ford they "might well be buying a ticket to jail."

Sounds awfully similar to the claims that end customers will be liable for merely using Linux based on some murky intellectual property claims, doesn't it?

Ford continued contesting the patent. In the words of Brown and Michaels:
It was reported that at one point during the trial, an automobile race was being organized outside the windows of the courthouse. Ford's lawyer looked out the window and said to the judge, "your honor, I see a Winton, and a Duryea, and many Fords out there - but not one single Selden!" He was right, of course - Selden was a patent attorney, not a car builder. In the course of the suit Selden did build a car according to the patent (for the first time, apparently), and it managed to stagger along under its own power for a short while before expiring. Finally, only one year before it was to expire, the Selden patent was declared invalid (except as to cars powered by the Brayton-type external-compression two-stroke engine described in the patent, which Selden's own expert testified at trial was not actually used by anyone making cars at that time).
This is a classic example of the problem with the 'usefulness' requirement for patent grants. We've talked about this once or twice before. Patent Examiners can't hope to have a chance of accurately determining whether a device actually works or not until they get a chance to look at a real instance of the working device.

This was the third in a series of stories about seminal inventions hindered by patents. Read Part I or Part II.


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