The four stages of making a paper plane. From a crumbled piece of paper to the plane.

What Patent Ownership Gets Wrong About Innovation

More than 230 years ago this week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) opened. Since then, over 11 million patents have been issued (USPTO). From the toilet paper roll in 1891 to mRNA technology that led to COVID-19 vaccines, patents mark important milestones in American innovation and ingenuity. Each creation offers solutions to issues, whether pressing or mundane. Despite the U.S. patent system seemingly remaining open to all inventors, the face of U.S. “innovation” has been overwhelmingly white, male, and born to wealth. 

Today, women represent 13% of U.S. patent holders, with Black and Latine women obtaining patents at rates even lower than their white counterparts (USPTOTechnology and Innovation). They are also more likely to have their applications rejected (Yale Insights). People from lower-income backgrounds receive fewer patents than people from wealthier ones. Black and Latine people each hold only one percent of patents. It’s estimated that billions to trillions of dollars are lost in potential economic activity due to these disparities (Technology and InnovationOpportunity Insights). 

“After centuries of a head start on patents, copyright, and intellectual property claims when people of color were not considered citizens, or at best lesser citizens, the default holders of “true imagination” have been, and remain, White Americans; within intellectual property law, people are still treated as derivative interlopers of most knowledge worthy of legal protections” (Stanford University Press).


• Support organizations like the S.E.E.K FoundationPurple Mai’aSTEM Like a Girl, and Kid Museum that empower the next generation of inventors and expand STEM programs to underrepresented youth.

• Learn more about the marginalized inventors whose inventions were overlooked or forgotten, including civil rights activist and patent examiner Henry Baker who worked to chronicle the work of Black inventors. 

The 1790 Patent Act didn’t explicitly ban women and minorities from receiving patents. In fact, some were able to acquire patents for their inventions, including Thomas L. Jennings, the first Black patent holder in the U.S., whose 1821 “dry scouring” method led to modern-day dry cleaning (Smithsonian Magazine). But state and federal laws barred women from owning property. White women would file under the names of their husbands, brothers, or other trusted men (Forbes). Enslaved Black people were property, making their ideas and creations the property of their owners. Enslaved Black people invented technology but couldn’t patent it because they were property, making their ideas and creations property of their owners. Free Black and poor white people faced ongoing barriers to acquiring patents due to a lack of access, money, legal assistance, and other social and economic resources required to obtain one (Brookings). 

During the Golden Age of Invention, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black invention and patent ownership grew, mainly in the North, where it was nearly at pace with white people and “at rates that would be considered extremely high by historic or global standards of invention even today” (Brookings). However, thanks to segregation laws and racial violence throughout the country, patent filings by Black inventors peaked in 1899 and have remained low since. Economist Lisa Cook estimates that lynchings and race riots amounted to the loss of more than 1,100 patents (NPR). 

2018 study found that it will take over a century to reach gender parity among U.S. inventors. And despite recent attempts to sanitize the forced labor of enslaved people as a form of apprenticeship that was mutually beneficial, enslaved peoples’ ingenuity was “appropriated and monetized” by white enslavers, with their contributions uncredited (New York Times). 

The mechanical reaper, which revolutionized farming by increasing harvest yields (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office), was developed “shoulder to shoulder” by Cyrus McCormick and Jo Anderson, an enslaved man owned by the McCormick family (Time). However, Anderson never received credit, compensation, or freedom for the 1830s patent. 

Alexander Graham Bell is widely recognized as the inventor of the telephone, since patenting the invention in 1876. However, more than a decade earlier, Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci developed the talking telegraph. He filed a caveat, or an announcement of an invention, in 1871 instead of a patent because of a language barrier and being “unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process” (Congress). Due to Meucci later lost his claim over the invention due to financial hardships and possible fraud and misrepresentation on Bell’s part, Bell received the patent and credit for creating the device. “If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell,” reads a 2002 U.S. House of Representatives resolution. The level of privilege that comes into play when assigning ownership to innovation means that intellectual property and patent ownership is not an objective standard of ingenuity, creativity, or work. 

But as evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in “Panda’s Thumb:”

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops” (Good Reads).

The contributions of Black, immigrant, and women were invaluable to the economic growth of this country, though their contributions often remain unnamed. Many were and still are kept from pursuing a career in innovation due to social and economic barriers that lead to creatorship and ingenuity being seen as a white male pursuit. It’s important to foster early youth engagement in innovation, technology, and STEM education in childhood to correct this narrative and ensure that any “lost Einsteins” are given the space and credit to be seen.


• Major advancements and innovations across industries like agriculture and transportation helped grow the U.S. economy. 

• Ingenuity is seen as a white male characteristic due to disparities in patent ownership.

• There are many “lost Einsteins” who would have developed “highly impactful inventions” had they been exposed to innovation during childhood.

1200 675 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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