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Egbert v. Lippmann

    Brief Fact Summary.Lippmann (Defendant) argued that the inventor’s gift of his invention, a set of corset-springs, to his girlfriend, Egbert (Plaintiff), constituted public use, thereby invalidating the patent.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If an inventor, having made his device, gives or sells it to another, to be used without limitation or restriction, or injunction of secrecy, and the device is so used, such use is public, even though the use and knowledge of the use may be confined to one person.

    Facts. In 1855, Samuel Barnes gave a set of corset-springs he had created to his girlfriend, Egbert (Plaintiff), who had complained that hers were always breaking. She wore the corset-springs for many years. She and Barnes later married. In 1866, after the principle of his design had become the standard in the industry, he applied for a patent. After he died, Plaintiff sued Lippmann (Defendant) for infringement of Plaintiff’s reissued letters-patent. Defendant successfully denied any infringement, claiming that the patented invention had, with the consent of the inventor, Barnes, been used publicly for more than two years before he applied for the original letters. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. If an inventor, having made his device, gives or sells it to another, to be used without limitation or restriction, or injunction of secrecy, and the device is so used, is such use public, even though the use and knowledge of the use may be confined to one person?

    Held. (Woods, J.) Yes. If an inventor, having made his device, gives or sells it to another, to be used without limitation or restriction, or injunction of secrecy, and the device is so used, such use is public, even though the use and knowledge of the use may be confined to one person. In this case, the invention was completed and put to use in 1855. The inventor slept on his rights for eleven years before applying for a patent. Meanwhile, the invention had found its way into general, and almost universal, use. The defense of two years’ public use, by the consent and allowance of the inventor, before he made application for letters-patent, is satisfactorily established by the evidence. Affirmed.

    Dissent. (Miller, J.) A private use with consent, which could lead to no copy or reproduction of the machine, which taught the nature of the invention to only the party to whom such consent was given, which left the public at large as ignorant of this as it was before the author’s discovery, was no abandonment to the public, and did not defeat his claim for a patent.

    Discussion.The case here concerning a pair of corset-springs demonstrates the rule that inventions that by their nature are only capable of being used where they cannot be seen or observed are considered to be used by the public if the inventor allows them to be used without any restrictions. If an invention is being used only for purposes for testing, however, that is not considered a public use. It is irrelevant whether or not the use was open to public view.


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