Oliver Evans and the Framing of American Patent Law
49 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2021 Last revised: 2 Nov 2021
Date Written: October 1, 2020
If the complicated birth of United States patent law can be told through the story of a single figure, that person is Oliver Evans. Evans’s patenting activities spanned the Founding. He received patents from four states in the 1780s, and then, in 1791, the third U.S. patent to be granted. This grant became the most contested patent of the early Republic. Amid bitter politicking, Evans received the first Congressional patent extension and brought four of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first six patent cases. He also pioneered large-scale patent enforcement, asserting and litigating his rights across multiple states, as well as issuing the first demand letter to a sitting U.S. President. In the process, Evans became the nation’s leading polemicist for the rights of patentees.
The story of Oliver Evans thus embodies the framing of American patent law -- the construction of both the law's institutional framework and the political and rhetorical claims that surrounded it. By appearing at all the major waypoints of Founding-era and early-nineteenth-century patent history, Evans provides a crucial test case for several important historical questions, including the degree of continuity between the first federal patents and their state predecessors, the contested role played by natural-rights conceptions of the patent, and the enforceability of inventors’ rights in the early Republic.
Keywords: Oliver Evans, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, 1790 Patent Act, patent law, patent system, patent litigation, patent licensing, patent history, state patent, natural rights, U.S. Supreme Court, Evans v. Eaton, Evans v. Jordan
JEL Classification: O31, O34, O38, O33, N71
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation