Tennant Case 1: Bonito Boats v. Thunder Craft, Inc. (1989)

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As I understand it, the case is as follows. Bonito Boats developed a process for duplicating fiberglass boat hulls without filing for a patent. Some time later, the state of Florida passed a law prohibiting the production and sale of unpatented boat hulls duplicated in this way. Bonito Boats then sued Thunder Craft, claiming that Thunder Craft had duplicated Bonito Boats' hulls in this way and sold them. The Florida courts and finally the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Thunder Craft should not be forced to pay anything to Bonito Boats because the Florida statute conflicted with federal patent laws, which have supremacy over state law. The Supreme Court gave the following reasons:

(a) Patent laws serve to promote creative activity by balancing public right and private monopoly. The patent system works only because of the free trade of unpatented, publicly known designs and concepts. The Florida statute effectively stifles this free system by assigning patent rights to unpatented conceptions.

(b) The Florida statute is incompatible with federal policies which favor free trade of ideas which are not worthy of patents. Not only are patent rights implicitly given to unpatented boat hulls and their components, but the patent rights given are not tied into the natural limits set by patent law; basically, the restrictions placed on the boat hulls and their parts do not expire.

(c) The Florida law defends unpatented boat hulls against reverse engineering, a right granted exclusively to federally patented concepts. Reverse engineering can be a catalyst for creative development.

(d) In and of itself, federal patent code does not disallow the opportunity for states to establish their own creative rights and intellectual property laws. However, those laws must not conflict with the federal patent code, as is the case here.

Dissent in this case arose from claims that the Florida statute only prohibited one kind of molding; the item itself, i.e., the boat hull, was still in the public domain. However, because the boat hull had been on the market for six years, the design had become unpatentable and was regarded as if a patent had been issued and expired. Furthermore, the entire public was prohibited from a form of reverse engineering a product which was clearly in the public domain; that the law only prohibited one kind of reverse engineering is immaterial due to its implications. Reverse engineering of unpatented items leads to advances in the technology.

The main point of patent law seems to be this: there is a constant tension between fully developing technology to advance our society and providing motivation for individual entities to undertake this development. In other words, nobody wants to build a better mousetrap if they won't profit from it. Patent law strives to promote the development of new mousetraps while allowing those who do so to believe in the exclusivity of their design.