My Public History project is about the impact the Corbin Cabinet and Lock Company had on intellectual property law. I believe it is a unique perspective. Unfortunately, the only primary sources I have are the Supreme Court decisions on patent disputes involving the Corbin Company from the late 19th century. There is very little commentary on these decisions of the Court, even though the decisions established an important test for determining the criteria for a new patentable idea.
I’ve scoured the literature on intellectual property law looking for insight on why the Court decided the way it did and what impact the decisions had on the Corbin Company. I’ve had very little success finding anything useful. My frustration is that I will need to essentially do an exegesis on the decisions themselves and then conclude what the thinking of the Court was. I suppose that this approach would work if I was doing research on a topic whose impact had already been established by peer reviewed academic papers. That is to say, it’d be easy to determine if my conclusions were right or wrong.
However, a public history project like this is rather intimidating. I feel that I’m at the water’s edge, putting my big toe in to test the temperature. If I do the project right, I will end up interpreting patent law history. The average person may review my work and agree that my reasoning is sound. However, a Law Professor specializing in intellectual property law may review the work and conclude that I have no idea what I’m talking about. My fear is akin to me doing geometric calculations of the earth’s horizon and coming to the conclusion that the world is flat. As I’ve said, it’s kind of scary.
On the other hand, doing the project shows how exciting public history can be. My experience with historical research thus far has essentially been standing on the shoulders of established historians. Most times, it’s been an interpretation of the conclusions of others. But doing this public history research is really stepping out on my own. To get it right, and, to make it interesting enough for others to read and review, is quite a daunting task.