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The Statue of Liberty Was Once Patented

Reading the original patent documents can help us learn more about this history of this American icon

The original design patent for the Statue of Liberty included this image, which isn't the final picture of what it would look like, but shows how far Bartholdi's image was developed by the time he applied for the patent. (USPTO)
smithsonian.com

Once—not anymore—one of America’s most potent symbols had its own patent, issued on this day in 1879.

USD11023 was issued to the French designer of the statue, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, whose “Liberty Enlightening the World” has stood overlooking New York Harbor since 1886.

1879 was three years after Bartholdi was originally commissioned to design what we now know as the Statue of Liberty, writes Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan for Gizmodo. While this patent is an interesting moment in American history, a look at the patent and its drafts can tell us something about how and why the iconic statue looks the way it does.  

Although when you hear patent you might think “invention,” the kind of patent that Bartholdi help for it is called a design patent, and in the words of the United States Patent and Trademark Office serves to allow the owner to “exclude others from making, using, or selling the design.” (Another iconic New York image, the I Heart New York logo, is trademarked, not patented.)

The patent, which expired after 14 years, includes a beautiful and poetic description of Bartholdi’s then-unfinished design, Campbell-Dollaghan writes. That description captures much of what the statue would come to symbolize in American myth:    

...A statue representing Liberty enlightening the world, the same consisting, essentially, of the draped female figure, with one arm upraised, bearing a torch, while the other holds an inscribed tablet, and having upon the head a diadem.

Besides the poetry, the patent contained a “slew of possible ways to reproduce Liberty,” Campbell-Dollaghan writes. It covered replicating the design as a statue or statuette, in relief, in pictures and even in a variety of materials: “metal, stone, terracotta, plaster-of-paris, or other plastic composition.” (No, not that kind of plastic.)  This might have been because tiny replicas of the statue were used as Kickstarter-type rewards for potential backers, she writes.

As the original patent records show, that section of the patent went through a few redraftings with the patent office. His handwritten patent application shows that “right hand” was crossed out in favor of “left hand,” although that could have been a copyist's error.

About seven years after Bartholdi received the patent for his invention, he ascended the Statue of Liberty and a crowd of one million New Yorkers watched and cheered as he released the French flag which had covered her face during construction.

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