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Law machines: scale models, forensic materiality and the making of modern patent law

By Alain Pottage


Early US patent law was machine made. Before the Patent Office took on the function of examining patent applications in 1836, questions of novelty and priority were determined in court, within the forum of the infringement action. And at all levels of litigation, from the circuit courts up to the Supreme Court, working models were the media through which doctrine, evidence and argument were made legible, communicated and interpreted. A model could be set on a table, pointed at, picked up, rotated or upended so as to display a point of interest to a particular audience within the courtroom, and, crucially, set in motion to reveal the ‘mode of operation’ of a machine. The immediate object of demonstration was to distinguish the intangible invention from its tangible embodiment, but models also ‘machined’ patent law itself. Demonstrations of patent claims with models articulated and resolved a set of conceptual tensions that still make the definition and apprehension of the invention difficult, even today, but they resolved these tensions in the register of materiality, performativity and visibility, rather than the register of conceptuality. The story of models tells us something about how inventions emerge and subsist within the context of patent litigation and patent doctrine, and it offers a starting point for renewed reflection on the question of how technology becomes property

Topics: K Law (General), T201 Patents. Trademarks
Publisher: Sage Publications
Year: 2011
DOI identifier: 10.1177/0306312711408484
OAI identifier:
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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