A Closer Look at the “Eye” Test: The British Influence on Early American Design Patent Infringement Law

By Mark D. Janis

from Volume 13 (2023-2024)

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The Supreme Court has asserted that “[t]he Patent Clause in our Constitution ‘was written against the backdrop’ of the English system.” That notion has a long lineage. In 1818, the author of an anonymous “Note on the Patent Laws,” widely assumed to be Justice Story, claimed that “[t]he patent acts of the United States are, in a great degree, founded on the principles and usages which have grown out of the English statute on the same subject.”

But these generalizations significantly overstate—and oversimplify—the influence of British law on the nascent American jurisprudence of patents. Early American jurists felt no reluctance about borrowing from British law, but they felt no evident obligation to do so, either. Faced with a paucity (or utter absence) of American precedents, judges in early American patent cases pretty well did whatever they pleased, sometimes relying on British decisions to fill in gaps in American law, sometimes distinguishing British from American law, and sometimes citing nothing at all.

Thus, when the Supreme Court penned its first opinion on design patent infringement in the December 1871 term—Gorham v. White—it was not entirely surprising that the Court’s lone reference to authority was to a single case from the British courts, the Holdsworth case. Still, the Court’s reliance on Holdsworth is remarkable, for reasons I explore in this article.

Part I briefly recounts the British lineage of American design patent law. Part II shows the ways in which the Court relied on the British Holdsworth case in deciding Gorham. Part III takes a closer look at Holdsworth’s influence on British design law, and compares that story to the story of the evolution of American rules for design patent infringement.