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Inventions—Question

Volume 203: debated on Friday 29 July 1870

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said, he rose to put a Question to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government on the subject of legislation in regard to Inventions. Inquiries had been conducted by a Committee of the House of Lords in 1851, and a Royal Commission in 1863. The results were very instructive and suggestive; but the investigation had not been so thorough as many persons expected. Obstacles had stood in the way of legislating for the reward of inventors up to the present time. At the beginning of last Session he had the honour of bringing the subject before the House, and the Attorney General then said that an investigation by a Committee would be expedient. A difficulty afterwards arose about getting a Committee, and about this time 12 months he asked the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, whose absence from the House was universally regretted, whether the Government had any intention of proposing a Committee this Session. The reply of the right hon. Gentleman was this—

"If my hon. Friend were to propose a Committee in this House, it would be a very reasonable proposition, to which the Members of the Government and this House would probably agree."
At the beginning of the present Session he renewed his application to the Board of Trade, but the absence of his right hon. Friend and the pressure of work in the public offices and the House had been such that his hopes and those of the public had been sorely disappointed. A Paper was ordered to be printed at the close of last Session in which hon. Members would find testimonies to the progress of public opinion on this question on the Continent of Europe. It would be seen that since they had discussed the question last year Holland had abolished patents altogether, and Count Bismarck, as Chancellor of the North German Confederation, had presented a State Paper in which he urged their abolition. He (Mr. Macfie) occupied a medium place between the two parties—the one contending that rewards for inventions should be continued in the shape of monopolies, and the other that patents should be abolished altogether and free trade introduced. He believed it was possible to take a middle course, beneficial to the nation and to inventors, by establishing a system of rewards, but in such a way that there should be no exclusive privilege. He wished to ask, Whether the Government were prepared next Session to propose the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Law of Patents for inventions, or, if not disposed themselves to do so, whether they would assist any private Member who wished to move for such a Committee?

said, the Government did not find themselves prepared to shift materially the ground they took last Session. They admitted at once the difficulties and disadvantages connected with the present state of the law in regard to patents, but they had not been able, as a body, to arrive — nor did he think the public had arrived — at any such clear conviction as to the mode of dealing with that law as would justify them in introducing a measure for remedying its defects or substituting for it a better system. Though his hon. Friend (Mr. Macfie) entertained a decided opinion as to the practicability of substituting State reward for the present system of public reward, yet he (Mr. Gladstone) doubted whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been able to see his way to the working of such a system, which must involve a heavy demand upon the public purse. The experience of Government Departments was that there was the extremest difficulty in dealing with inventions or with claims to them; and if once inventions came to be made the subject of premiums to be drawn out of the public purse, he was afraid that universal confusion would result. The Government were under an obligation, as a general rule, not to move for a Committee on a particular branch of the law, unless they were prepared to take the lead in directing its investigations, and make proposals which, in the main and in principle, they thought adequate to the solution of the question. The Government did not feel themselves to be in a position to do that; but if his hon. Friend (Mr. Macfie), or any other hon. Gentleman, was desirous of conducting such an inquiry, they certainly would not throw any obstacle in his way, but would heartily wish him well in his endeavour.