How Xerox’s Intellectual Property Prevented Anyone From Copying Its Copiers

Jessica Silbey, Boston University School of Law


The story of the invention of the photocopy machine—or the “Xerox machine” as many call it—dramatizes both cherished and contested features of intellectual property. It dramatizes the myth of the lone inventor, here Chester Carlson, born poor and disadvantaged, who made his fortune from the invention but not before toiling in a patent office and in his own start-up for decades. But the development of the Xerox machine is also the story of collaboration and teamwork, which is essential to most innovation with social impact. The origin of the Xerox machine demonstrates how need, a passion for puzzles, and the creative spirit motivate everyday inventors. And its success in the marketplace implicates the role of business leverage and profit in productive creativity and innovation. The story is about rivals and claims of stealing ideas as well as about inevitable influence and borrowing, both which structure and inform incremental and ground-breaking invention. And if these tensions aren’t enough, the intellectual property that protected the Xerox machine forbids copying and yet the Xerox machine is used to make copies. While the Xerox machine is a tool for making exact copies, it often facilitates transformative creativity from innumerable writers, artists and musicians. The story of the Xerox machine is a microcosm of debates surrounding the proper purpose and scope of intellectual property and an object lesson in how irreconcilable dualities inform the everyday practice of intellectual property.