Working Knowledge: Employee Innovation and the Rise of Corporate Intellectual Property, 1800-1930

Catherine L. Fisk.

Published 2009. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press or Amazon. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3302-5.

Skilled workers of the early nineteenth century enjoyed a degree of professional independence because workplace knowledge and technical skill were their “property,” or at least their attribute. In most sectors of today’s economy, however, it is a foundational and widely accepted truth that businesses retain legal ownership of employee-generated intellectual property. In Working Knowledge, Catherine Fisk chronicles the legal and social transformations that led to the transfer of ownership of employee innovation from labor to management. This deeply contested development was won at the expense of workers’ entrepreneurial independence and ultimately, Fisk argues, economic democracy. By reviewing judicial decisions and legal scholarship on all aspects of employee-generated intellectual property and combing the archives of major nineteenth-century intellectual property-producing companies–including DuPont, Rand McNally, and the American Tobacco Company–Fisk makes a highly technical area of law accessible to general readers while also addressing scholarly deficiencies in the histories of labor, intellectual property, and the business of technology.


“A detailed, thoughtful study that makes effective use of archival business histories to illustrate how a few of the more interesting and pioneering American firms help to not only shape workplace innovation but also ultimately manage and regulate that knowledge. . . . Highly recommended.”
– Choice

“Very readable and well-organized . . . of great interest to those specializing in contemporary aspects of intellectual property and labor and employment law, as well as to historians of labor, business, and technology.”
– IP Law Book Review

“This is a remarkable book, with a great deal of new information and a fresh perspective on the truly decentralized and diverse mechanisms that led to the corporate control of innovative activity we so often see today.”
– Journal of American History

“Fisk weaves together an exemplary narrative about the development of the modern American intellectual property regime…this masterful book is certain to remain the final word on this topic for a considerable amount of time.”
– Essays in History

“Well worth the wait.”
– EH.Net

“Working Knowledge is a tour de force. Fisk takes a series of subjects that individually are complex and multi-layered–labor relations, intellectual property rights, control over innovation–and weaves them together into a pattern that is both subtle and clear. Scholars of innovation, of labor relations, of intellectual property, and of legal history will all find something fascinating here. Highly recommended!”
– James Boyle, author of The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind

2010 Littleton-Griswold Prize, American Historical Association, 2010 John Phillip Reid Book Award, American Society for Legal History
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