About the Exhibition

About the Exhibition

Patent Pending is a group exhibition that explores the role of patents in the arts community. Featuring eight artworks, each accompanied by a corresponding patent application that has been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office by the artist/inventor, the exhibition establishes a relationship between artworks and patents that serves as a foundation for a broader investigation into the complicated relationship between artists, ownership, and invention. Within the exhibition, additional signs display public patent data that frames the debate related to patents and innovation, and a complementary talk series brings together the arts, entrepreneur, and legal communities to discuss what recent changes to patent law mean for inventions and inventors in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The exhibition is named after a term found etched on machinery and stamped on children’s toys. While the mark’s purpose is to declare ownership by alerting viewers that the inventor has filed for a patent related to that item, the expression also evokes nostalgia for a legacy of invention that allows every inventor the opportunity to profit from his or her ideas. This friction between the legal definition of a patent (a government property right), and a historical ideal (a symbol of invention deeply tied to American identity) has contributed to conflicted views of patents both within the arts community and the inventor community at large. Recently, patents have been called “swords” and “destructive weapons” in popular headlines, high profile lawsuits such as Apple vs. Samsung have raised public awareness of patents, and the White House posted a fact sheet to it’s website on June 4, 2013 detailing legislation the administration is pursuing to fight patent trolls. 

This shift in emphasis related to role of patents, from tools promoting individual invention to legal weapons used in high-profile corporate lawsuits, has created concern in the arts community about what it means to buy into a system of ownership that seems to privilege corporations over individuals.Given this environment, it often comes as a surprise that artists hold patents. However, the arts and invention have historically been connected. 

In 1790, when President George Washington signed the bill that laid the foundation of the U.S. patent system, it was titled “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts.” Since then, public understanding of the arts has been separated from utility. Is this the source of a perceived conflict of interest that has arisen between art and patents? Or does the reaction of surprise occur because navigating the patent system has become so costly and arduous that it is difficult to imagine that artists have the resources to take the process on?

Navigating the U.S. Patent System is no easy task. It requires an idea, research, lawyers, descriptions, diagrams, rewrites, and a decent chunk of change. Individuals receive only 10% of patents. Despite these odds, each of the seven artists participating in this exhibition made the decision to file for a U.S. patent. Two patents are still pending, and four have been granted. For Scott Snibbe, Camille Utterback, and Romy Achituv, the artwork generated the patent, in that through the process of creating their works they invented a new interface that was later patented. Maggie Orth, Phil Ross, and Daniel Rozin patented systems that emerged from their artistic research, and then later used their inventions to create the artworks on display. And Catherine Richards’ conceptual artwork is an official patent document that uses art historical references to explore what can and cannot be sharedand patented within a system of changing rules.

Patents are just one of many systems that can be used to trace the dynamic connection between artists and invention. As patent disputes continue to make headlines issues related to patents, ownership, and intellectual property will remain contentious across the art, science, and technology fields. Within this context, it’s often missed that like the entrepreneurs and inventors who have defined Silicon Valley, many artists have applied for patents with broad uses beyond their artistic practice. By connecting artworks to patents, this exhibition highlights six stories within a much longer lineage of artist/inventors whose ideas have shaped the way we see and interact with the world.

-Jaime Austin, Curator

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*Images above are pulled from the individual artist's patent drawings as filed at United States Patent and Tradmark Office