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The Myth of the Sole Inventor: A Socialist Diatribe by Professor Mark A Lemley

The Myth of the Sole Inventor: A Socialist Diatribe by Professor Mark A Lemley

The Myth of the Sole Inventor, By Mark A. Lemley, Stanford Law School

Professor Mark A Lemley has written a paper suggesting that sole inventors and individual genius does not exist.  Mr. Lemley teaches patent law and intellectual property law at Stanford University.  However, Mr. Lemley is not a patent attorney, does not have a technical background and as his paper proves has not understanding of technology.  Mr. Lemley’s idea of collectivist invention ignores three basic facts:

1) Groups of people are made up of individuals.

2) Every individual has to think for themselves – you cannot think for someone else, which is a source of frustration for every parent (child).

3) Throughout history the rate of invention was very slow until we introduced property rights for inventions (patents).

Lemley purposely downplays Edison’s achievement.  The fact is that Edison created the first high resistance, long lasting, incandescent light bulb.  This was a huge achievement that made electrical lighting commercially feasible.  Many “experts” with Ph.D.s from the most prestigious universities at the time said electrical lighting was impossible commercially.  Lemley also has his history wrong.  Swan was the most important inventor of the light bulb, before Edison.  He mentions Man and Sawyer, who I find no reference to in any history of the incandescent light bulb.  Lemley appears to have no regard for facts.  His analysis of the Wright brother’s achievements is similarly sloppy and just plain wrong.

Lemley’s argument that great inventions are created by multiple people simultaneously has been examined by numerous scholars and found to be incorrect.  For instance, see Jacob Schmookler and his ground breaking book, Invention and Economic Growth, which examined this issue.  People like Lemley attempt to smear together multiple inventions as being the same invention.  For instance, they see Swan’s light bulb and Edison’s light bulb as simultaneous inventions of the light bulb.  Lemley may have made this mistake because he does not have the technical background necessary to understand the issues surrounding the invention of the light bulb.  However, I suspect that Lemley is not interested in the truth, he is interested in pushing a political theory of collectivist invention.  If Lemley’s ideas held any water at all, then you would expect either: 1) the USSR/North Korea should have been one of the greatest sources of inventions in the history of the World, and/or 2) the greatest population centers would be the biggest creators of new technology.  The facts are that neither are true.  The first is self evident.  The second appears to be true until the creation of property rights for inventions.  When England and the U.S. create an effective property rights system for inventors almost all significant inventions for the Industrial Revolution are invented in the U.S. and England, even though their populations are much smaller than France, China, India, etc.

Lemley is pushing an old worn out socialist idea that individuals do not matter only the collective.  This paper is not novel and its thesis has been proven false over and over again.  But socialists do not believe in an objective reality.

The paper is an example of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of many of our academic institutions.

The Myth of the Sole Inventor, By Mark A. Lemley, Stanford Law School


  1. Dale,

    I have to give you high marks for so eloquently pointing out the false narrative painted in history-distorting water colors by the good Professor.

    Why if one were to give even a droplet of credibility to the Professor’s hand-woven tale, then one would have to see the 1800′s as populated mostly by millions of highly educated and brightly enlightened persons, from peasant to nobleman, all running around experimenting with this and that and all simultaneously and successfully screaming EUREKA as their spontaneously co-invented light bulbs passed the 100 hours of still-working life mark.

    But the historical truth is that world demographics was flipped in an exactly inverted pyramid.

    Your teeming masses were for the most part, poorly educated, struggling to just get by and had no clue as to the idea of playing around with the newly-discovered electricity thing and with the idea of giving up on their fireplaces, candles and perhaps an oil lamp for limited night time lighting.

    The history of the incandescent light bulb is spelled out here:
    and why re-invent it when it is there to cast a sunbeam of truth upon the good Professor’s shadow of shame.

    Even people with extraordinary skills in the newly-unfolding electricity arts had no idea of how to make a commercially practical light bulb. Edison was the one who out-shined them all.

    And now, because he too is a skilled inventor; an inventor of inverted histories, the good Professor would like to teach his students about a world that never was and never will be; a world where every everyday person is an Edison in his own rights and no extraordinary person deserves recognition for having stood out from the crowd and done something unique.

    No need to go on though. One need only juxtapose a few sample biographies and compare accomplishments:

  2. Very eloquently put. I love the fact that the good professor teaches patent law, but does not have a technical background, has not passed the patent bar and has never filed or prosecuted a patent application. But of course this is irrelevant – real patent law can be understood by appellate practice only without any understanding of the facts, which were all decided by the jury at the lower court level anyway.

  3. A true comprehension comes only after you yourself have stepped into the shoes of the inventor, tried many permutations and failed, pitched many ideas only to be rebuffed time and again, and yet you persisted and plodded forward, only to be told at the end of that one, at-last-successful march; that it was all obvious to everyone around you in the first place!

  4. Since when is opposing regulation called “socialist”?

  5. Do you consider title to your car a regulation? Patents are a property RIGHT not a regulation

  6. [...] and the idea of individual inventors coming up with important inventions is a myth.  I have shown that the broad macroeconomic facts do not support his theory.  Now John Howells and Ron Katznelson [...]

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