In Private Practice for 25 Years


Egbert v. Lippmann, 104 US 333 (1881)


Barnes was the inventor of steel springs that were hidden inside a corset.  In 1855, he gave the springs to his girlfriend, who later became his wife.  He gave her another set in 1858.  In 1866, Barnes applied for and obtained a patent. 


After Barnes death, his widow (now going under the name Egbert) was the assignee of the patent, who then sued Lippmann, a competitor who was creating similar products, for infringement.  Lipmann argued that inventor Barnes had publicly disclosed his invention for more than two year prior to filing the patent application (current law reduces that period to one year).


The issue before the US Supreme Court was whether the patented invention had, with the consent of the inventor, been “publicly” used by the inventor’s wife.  The public use doctrine renders letters-patent invalid if the invention was in public use, with the consent and allowance of the inventor, beyond the statutory grace period, prior to applying for a patent.


The Court held that when an inventor gives or sells the invented product to another, without limitation or a requirement of secrecy, the resulting use is public even though the use, and knowledge of the use, is confined to one person.

This principle is not defeated by the fact that a product such as corset springs cannot be seen or observed by the public eye.


The outcome of this case may have been different if the inventor has imposed an obligation of secrecy, or some other condition or restriction.  The outcome may also have been different if the use was for the purpose of experiment, or for testing the product’s qualities.


Lacking such restrictions or experimental purposes, the concealed use of the corset springs by the inventor’s wife was a public use that invalidated the patent.


Copyright Thomas L. Adams 2014