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Olivia Bethea L’21 argues for intellectual property reparations for African American inventors in forthcoming essay

September 29, 2021

Bethea’s “The Unmaking of ‘Black Bill Gates’: How the U.S. Patent System Failed African American Inventors” will be published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online.

Recent University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School graduate Olivia Bethea L’21 has a forthcoming essay in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online entitled “The Unmaking of ‘Black Bill Gates’: How the U.S. Patent System Failed African American Inventors.”

In this pathbreaking piece, Bethea argues that the U.S. government owes African Americans reparations for the harm of the Transatlantic Slave Trade that go beyond real property, healthcare disparities, mass incarceration, and educational opportunities. Such reparations must also include, writes Bethea, “the value of patents historically denied to them.”

Bethea notes the “[r]evolutionary contributions from enslaved Black inventors and their descendants,” which “catapulted the United States to the top of the global economy.” Because Black people could not own property under existing laws, however, they also were denied the right to own their own intellectual property.

“After emancipation, structural racism and racial violence continued to ostracize African Americans from the patent system until their inventive activity plummeted in the late 1800s,” writes Bethea. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade’s legacy endures in the patent context. Its violence has contributed to the underrepresentation of African American patent applicants and awardees, stark disparities in income and economic mobility, and forgone inventive contributions.”

Bethea concludes that “a reparations package should restore African American inventive activity, remedy gaps in economic mobility and earning, and increase innovation in the United States overall.”

Read more insightful and nuanced legal scholarship in Penn Law Review Online.