Protecting Intellectual Property

Werner von Siemens and his engagement for German patent protection 

Werner von Siemens was one of the pioneers in the field of electrical engineering. In addition to his scientific and entrepreneurial activities, he also championed causes in the industrial policy arena. Between 1863 and 1877, he played a major role in helping create the statutory conditions for commercial protection of technical innovations in Germany.

Prussian patent system under scrutiny – Little transparency, short terms, inadequate protection

Werner von Siemens, the successful entrepreneur and inspired inventor, always kept industrial applications in mind in all of his developments. In his autobiography, he wrote:

A technical invention first gains value and importance when the technology has progressed to a point where the invention is usable and has become a necessity. That’s why one so often sees highly significant inventions slumber for decades before they suddenly gain major importance.
Werner von Siemens, Recollections, 1892

Werner von Siemens recognized the importance of patents very early on – both for the inventor and the entrepreneur. In 1842, at the age of 26, he acquired his first patent for a gold-plating process – and numerous others were to follow. His younger brother William was able to sell the patent for a profit in England – a major business success.


Nevertheless, Werner von Siemens had a rather negative view of the contemporary Prussian patent system. He believed the criteria for awarding a patent were far too opaque and the three-year term for industrial property rights was far too short.


Moreover, the patents offered only limited protection against imitations, since every small German state had its own laws or did not grant patents at all. Starting in 1855, Werner von Siemens consequently did not make any more efforts to obtain patents in Prussia or in other German states. The situation was different abroad, particularly in England, where he considered patent registrations to be sensible.


In Germany, Werner von Siemens tried to compensate for the lack of “invention protection” – as it was called then – through the quality of production. As he wrote in his Personal Recollections, “I believe a major reason behind the flourishing of our manufacturing is that the products of our fabrication are largely based on our own inventions. While these in most cases weren’t protected by patents, we at least had an edge over our competitors […]. A lasting effect, however, was only possible with a reputation for greatest reliability and quality, which our factories enjoyed throughout the world.” 

“Positive proposals for a patent law” – Memorandum for the Minister of Commerce

Despite – or perhaps because of – his reservations about German patent rights, Werner von Siemens participated keenly in public discussions on either abolishing or retaining and reforming patent protection. From 1860 on, the issue of patents was discussed in the German Parliament, since various governments within the German Federation were striving for a standardization patent law.


Werner von Siemens, who had been member of the Prussian State Parliament since 1862, soon realized that he could also leverage his political position in the patent debate. When the Prussian Minister of Commerce, Count von Itzenplitz, initiated a survey among organizations dealing with patent issues in 1863, the electrical pioneer took a position on the Board of Elders of the Berlin Merchants’ Association, to which he has belonged since the end of 1860.


He prepared a memorandum – an expert opinion from the Berlin Chamber of Commerce addressed to the Minister of Commerce. His “positive proposals for a patent act” made Werner von Siemens one of the most sought-after proponents of such initiatives in the following years. Moreover, his statements provided the reasoned basis for the later patent law. In the short term, his memorandum led the Prussian government to abandon its plans to abolish patents altogether.

Fine powers of persuasion – Chancellor Bismarck comes on board

Werner von Siemens also prepared a “Memorandum on the Necessity of Patent Protection,” which he presented to Chancellor Bismarck in April 1876. The compelling arguments in it, along with the fame and experience of its author, were able to dispel misgivings, which at this time have primarily arisen from a mix of economic and moral aspects. Bismarck was now convinced that a patent law was a necessity and ordered a hearing where experts were to be consulted on the matter.


When Rudolph von Delbrück, President of the Chancellery and one of the most prominent domestic opponents of patent laws, resigned from office, nothing further stood in the way of the law. On the basis of the work prepared by the Patent Protection Association and advice by the experts, activities began in the late summer of 1876, culminating in the Prussian Patent Law of July 1, 1877.


Even after that, Werner von Siemens played an active and committed part by taking on a responsible position: Four days later, he was appointed as a non-permanent member of the Imperial Patent Office. In his autobiography, he recalled that the patent law primarily initiated by him makes an exceptional contribution to "strengthening German industry and earning respect for its achievements both at home and abroad.” 




Dr. Florian Kiuntke

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Further information on this topic

Further reading

  • Margrit Seckelmann, Industrialisierung, Internationalisierung und Patentrecht im Deutschen Reich, 1871–1914 (= Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte; Bd. 201), Frankfurt am Main 2006 (in German only)