Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version
The Black Flag
THROUGHOUT the forty-odd years of his creative life, Edison has realized by costly
experience the truth of the cynical proverb that "A patent is merely a title to a lawsuit." It
is not intended, however, by this statement to lead to any inference on the part of the
reader that HE stands peculiarly alone in any such experience, for it has been and still is
the common lot of every successful inventor, sooner or later.
To attribute dishonesty or cupidity as the root of the defence in all patent litigation would
be aiming very wide of the mark, for in no class of suits that come before the courts are
there any that present a greater variety of complex, finely shaded questions, or that
require more delicacy of interpretation, than those that involve the construction of
patents, particularly those relating to electrical devices. Indeed, a careful study of legal
procedure of this character could not be carried far without discovery of the fact that in
numerous instances the differences of opinion between litigants were marked by the
utmost bona fides.
On the other hand, such study would reveal many cases of undoubted fraudulent intent, as
well as many bold attempts to deprive the inventor of the fruits of his endeavors by those
who have sought to evade, through subtle technicalities of the law, the penalty justly due
them for trickery, evasion, or open contempt of the rights of others.
In the history of science and of the arts to which the world has owed its continued
progress from year to year there is disclosed one remarkable fact, and that is, that
whenever any important discovery or invention has been made and announced by one
man, it has almost always been disclosed later that other men --possibly widely separated
and knowing nothing of the other's work--have been following up the same general lines
of investigation, independently, with the same object in mind. Their respective methods
might be dissimilar while tending to the same end, but it does not necessarily follow that
any one of these other experimenters might ever have achieved the result aimed at,
although, after the proclamation of success by one, it is easy to believe that each of the
other independent investigators might readily persuade himself that he would ultimately
have reached the goal in just that same way.
This peculiar coincidence of simultaneous but separate work not only comes to light on
the bringing out of great and important discoveries or inventions, but becomes more
apparent if a new art is disclosed, for then the imagination of previous experimenters is
stimulated through wide dissemination of the tidings, sometimes resulting in more or less
effort to enter the newly opened field with devices or methods that resemble closely the
original and fundamental ones in principle and application. In this and other ways there
arises constantly in the United States Patent Office a large number of contested cases,
called "Interferences," where applications for patents covering the invention of a similar
device have been independently filed by two or even more persons. In such cases only
one patent can be issued, and that to the inventor who on the taking of testimony shows
priority in date of invention.