18 November, 2013

Retrospective - What is an Invention? An Early Australian Perspective

When considering the humongous advances through invention humanity has undergone in its existence in this world, starting from the primitive inventions such as the ability to control fire to more modern marvels such as the Internet, one cannot be nothing but at awe with the collective capabilities of humans. Inventions themselves can cover almost anything when thinking in laymen's terms, but what amounts to an invention under law? In Australia this is judged based on the NRDC case, which has been discussed on this blog prior; however a case nearly 50 years earlier set the stage for NRDC which is often overlooked.

The case in question is Rogers v Commissioner of Patents, decided in 1910 by the High Court of Australia. The invention being dealt with in the case was a device or a contraption designed to burn down standing timber, causing only a segment of the bottom to burn, thus felling the tree once burned sufficiently. The device used kept the burning piece of wood used to burn down the tree in constant contact with the tree through a tripod of sorts (two forked pieces of wood) which rested the burning piece of wood against the base of the tree at an angle. Due to this the smaller burning piece of wood would fall towards the base of the tree as it was heavier, keeping it in constant contact with it as desired. 

Much like the aforementioned NRDC case the question at hand for the High Court of Australia was whether this device would fall under the 'manner of manufacture' requirement in the Statute of Monopolies 1623. Chief Justice Griffith contemplated the phrase's meaning in the majority decision, seeing that the word 'manufacture' can apply both to the product itself or the manner in which it is produced. He further distinguished that mere new ideas themselves will not be sufficient to be patentable, drawing from the case of Harwood v Great Northern Railway Co: "...you cannot have a patent for a well-known mechanical contrivance merely when it is applied in a manner or to a purpose, which is not quite the same, but is analogous to the mariner or the purpose in or to which it has been hitherto notoriously used". His Honor clearly refers to the use of the two forked sticks in the device in question as to whether they would fall under such a definition. In further explaining his position, his Honor referred to the case of Lane Fox v Kensington and Knightsbridge Electric Lighting Co: "A patentee must do something more; he must make some addition, not only to knowledge, but to previously known inventions, and must so use his knowledge and ingenuity as to produce either a new and useful thing or result, or a new and useful method of producing an old thing or result".

Joseph was confused as to how to use the device
As said above, the use of a very primitive device, clearly already known, would be hard-pressed to fall under the definition of a manner of manufacture under his Honor's considerations. His Honor does go into more detail applying the aforementioned precedents in the patentability of new ideas: "There may... in some circumstances be a patentable invention if the discovery involves novelty in the use of a known thing as distinguished from novelty of purpose or if any new modification of the thing or any new appliance is necessary for using it for the new purpose". In his mind a tripod, as the two sticks served as, did not fall under this doctrine, as the device was not a modification of the conventional tripod nor was there a new appliance; the sticks merely served as a tripod even under the new use. His Honor dismissed the appeal on these grounds.

Justice Isaacs showed a different approach, giving a dissenting opinion. In his Honor's mind new uses for old apparatuses could attract patentability, quoting a number of cases, the more illustrative of which is the House of Lords decision of Patterson v Gas Light and Coke Co: "...if by reason of knowing the theory he [the appellant] is enabled to make some improvements he may take out a patent for those improvements, but he cannot take out a patent to prevent others using what they had used before, though only empirically". In his Honor's mind the use of the tripods in this manner would be patentable.

As one can see the old views of what can be considered an invention, or a manner of manufacture, showcase themselves to be incredibly archaic, although still very useful in further considerations. Rogers v Commissioner of Patents was used extensively in NRDC, and therefore merits discussion, but it's application in today's patent law can be said to be minimal at best. Regardless, this case is still overlooked, and does give more insight to the origins of modern patent laws and their application.

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