Teachers

Teaching With Documents:
Eli Whitney's Patent for the Cotton Gin

The Purpose of Patents

According to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of patents is to promote or stimulate the progress of science and the useful arts. There are several key arguments in favor of patents which can be categorized thus:

Reward of the Inventor

The inventor should be recompensed for the contribution he or she has made to society and for her genius, time, and effort. Patents provide incentive to would-be inventors, be they rich or poor, whether they have wealthy patrons or are working alone. Thus a patent rewards individual initiative. Because the first to secure a patent on an invention wins the prize, patents foster competition.

Disclosure of the Invention

The patent system encourages disclosure and discourages secrecy, thus ensuring a free flow of information essential in a democracy and free enterprise system. If I invented a glove-making machine that anyone could legally copy, I could not make a profit on it unless I kept the workings of the machine secret while selling the gloves. Because a patent creates a legal monopoly for a number of years (today it is 20) I can safely share how my new machine works with the public while still reserving my rights to profit from it. Drawings and specifications of the patent become part of the public record. Today the Records of the Patent and Trademark Office are in Record Group 241 at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Development of Invention

A patent is awarded for a practical and workable idea, but it will bring no one profit unless manufactured. Production costs money -- investment on the part of the inventor or other investors willing to take the risk. A patent protects an expensive development against competition long enough to get the project started. Thus it holds out the promise that the risks taken in manufacturing a new invention will eventually be repaid.

Public Welfare

Patent law never intended to create permanent monopolies. Thus when the term of the patent is expired, the invention becomes part of the public domain.

This article was written by Joan Brodsky Schur, a teacher at Village Community School in New York, NY, to accompany her lesson about Eli Whitney's patent for the cotton gin.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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