Patent Politics: Intellectual Property, the Railroad Industry, and the Problem of Monopoly

Usselman, Steven W.; John, Richard R.

As winter descended on Washington in December 1878, the Forty-fifth Congress gathered for what promised to be a hectic third and final session. At this critical juncture in American politics, the Senate found itself embroiled in a long and complex discussion of the virtues and deficiencies of the patent system.

Patent policy resonated with powerfully felt ideologies and tapped into strongly felt beliefs. Patents were exclusive privileges that the federal government granted to certain individuals for a limited period of time, and, like all monopoly grants, their regulation raised some of the most fundamental questions of the age. The monopoly issue confronted every branch of nineteenth-century American government as well as every jurisdiction: federal, state, and local. In essence, the issue boiled down to two interrelated questions: Did the government have the authority to regulate the monopolies it had created? And, if so, how?

The ramifications of the patent issue were practical as well as ideological. At its core, it posed a special challenge for two groups of economic actors, namely, farmers and railroads, who were often at odds not only with Congress but also with each other.

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Journal of Policy History

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January 17, 2020