9.16.19 —Corsets and copiers are at the heart of chapters penned by Northeastern Law faculty members Kara Swanson and Jessica Silbey in the provocative new book, A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2019), edited by Claudy Op den Kamp and Dan Hunter. The 50 objects — examined in chapters by leading experts in fields including law, history, science, media and even horticulture, among others — not only demonstrate the significance of intellectual property systems, but also show how IP has developed and how it has influenced our experiences of everyday objects. Each story provides a glimpse into examples of how innovations, great and small, offer a unique lens on our past, present and future.

The coffee-table style book is beautifully illustrated and written in highly accessible language that will delight lawyers and non-lawyers alike. “This is a brilliantly conceived trick to teach a deep understanding of a complex idea through the most tangible and compelling collection of things. The things pull you through; the ideas carry you away. IP shown, not told,” said Lawrence Lessig, a member of the Harvard Law School faculty.

In her chapter on the corset, Swanson takes readers back two centuries, to a time when women and girls throughout the United States reached for one piece of technology first thing in the morning and kept it with them all day long—the corset. It emphasized (or depending on the whims of fashion, deemphasized), bust, waist and hips in ways intended to accentuate differences between male and female. Today, the corset still fascinates, an emblem of femininity that appears on fashion runways and the concert stage. Less visible are the ways the corset as an object of intellectual property has exposed the masculine assumptions in our understanding of technology, patents and law.

“When we think of technology, we think of machines, not underwear,” says Swanson, who holds both a law degree and PhD in the history of science, and is the author of Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk and Sperm in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2014). “This understanding of technology is the product of the Industrial Revolution. Patent laws drafted and interpreted in the 19th century helped reinforce the masculinity of technology, invention and inventors by the legal definition of ‘invention.’” 

In her chapter exploring the invention of the photocopy machine, Silbey, director of the law school’s Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity (CLIC), brings to life a story about rivals and claims of stolen ideas as well as about inevitable influence and borrowing, both which structure and inform incremental and ground-breaking invention. “The story of the invention of the photocopy machine—or the ‘Xerox machine’ as many call it—dramatizes both cherished and contested features of intellectual property. It dramatizes the myth of the lone inventor, here Chester Carlson, born poor and disadvantaged, who made his fortune from the invention but not before toiling in a patent office and in his own start-up for decades. But the development of the Xerox machine is also the story of collaboration and teamwork, which is essential to most innovation with social impact,” said Silbey.

About Northeastern University School of Law

The nation’s leader in experiential legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law offers the longest-running, most extensive experience-based legal education program in the country and is a national leader in legal education reform. Founded with cooperative legal education as the cornerstone of its program, Northeastern guarantees its students unparalleled practical legal work experiences. All students participate in full-time legal placements, and can choose from the more than 1,500 employers worldwide participating in the school’s signature Cooperative Legal Education Program. The future of legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law blends theory and practice, providing students with a unique set of skills and experience to successfully practice law.

For more information, contact d.feldman@northeastern.edu.