Egbert v. Lippmann

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Egbert v. Lippmann
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 11, 14, 1881
Decided December 12, 1881
Full case name Egbert v. Lippmann
Citations 104 U.S. 333 (more)
26 L. Ed. 755; 1881 U.S. LEXIS 2008; 14 Otto 333
Prior history On appeal from the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York
Sale or public use of an invention for a statutorily-specified time period bars patenting of that invention.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Woods, joined by Waite, Clifford, Field, Bradley, Hunt, Harlan, Matthews
Dissent Miller
Laws applied
35 U.S.C. § 102

Egbert v. Lippmann, 104 U.S. 333 (1881),[1] was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that public use of an invention bars the patenting of it.

Facts and procedural history[edit]

Samuel Barnes designed “corset-steels”, which were springs to hold a corset together. In 1855 he gave the springs as a gift to his girlfriend Frances, who would later become his wife and the executrix of his will. In 1858 he gave her another set of steels, which she used for a long time. In 1863, Samuel and Frances showed the invention to his friend Joseph Sturgis; and in 1866 Samuel applied for a patent. Then, Frances sued for patent infringement.

Majority opinion[edit]

Justice William Burnham Woods wrote for the majority, explaining that public use of the invention by only one person is sufficient to be considered a public use, even where the usage of the invention is not visible to the general public. Similarly, a gift to another party without regards to secrecy or restrictions on use is sufficient to bar a patent for the same reason. Woods held that the use here was different from that in City of Elizabeth v. Pavement Company because this was not a good faith effort to test or experiment with the design. Furthermore, Barnes “slept on his rights” for the eleven years between 1855 and 1866, not applying for a patent until other manufacturers had already incorporated aspects similar to Barnes’ design into their own products. He did not bother applying for a patent until he came to the belated realization that he could potentially profit from his invention. Thus, the court held that the patent was invalid.


Justice Samuel Freeman Miller was the sole dissenter in this case, disagreeing with the majority about the “public” nature of Frances’ use of the corset-steels. The use was not visible to the public, as it was only used by one woman, underneath her outer clothing, and could not have divulged the nature or design of the invention to the public at large.


  1. ^ 104 U.S. 333 Full text of the opinion courtesy of