March 2012 Vol. 110 No. 5 THE REVIEW

The Myth of the Sole Inventor

Mark A. Lemley

The theory of patent law is based on the idea that a lone genius can solve problems that stump the experts, and that the lone genius will do so only if properly incented. But the canonical story of the lone genius inventor is largely a myth. Surveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon. The result is a real problem for classic theories of patent law. Our dominant theory of patent law doesn’t seem to explain the way we actually implement that law.

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