Obituary: Bill Cornish


We are very sorry to hear about the sad news that Professor Bill Cornish has passed away. Bill spent nearly 30 years at the LSE between 1962 and 1990. He was huge figure in the field of Legal History and Intellectual Property, playing a major role in the formation of IP law as an academic discipline at the LSE and in the UK.  He left us in 1990 to take up the Herchel Smith Chair in Intellectual Property Law at Cambridge, which he held until his retirement. Our thoughts are with Bill’s family.

William Rodolph Cornish (1937-2022)

W. R. Cornish, who has died at the age of 84, has been described as the father of intellectual property teaching and scholarship in the United Kingdom. Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Bill Cornish first came to Britain in 1955 on a gap year, before commencing his law degree at the University of Adelaide. Keen to return to Europe on graduation, he obtained a scholarship to study for the BCL in Oxford, and was then appointed as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics. Arriving at the LSE in 1962, Bill found it to be a very congenial place for the kind of teaching and research he wanted to do. At the time he joined, the LSE was well-known for its innovative and critical approach to law teaching. While the ancient universities focused their attention on the traditional subjects required by the bar for qualification purposes, the LSE sought to develop courses in areas of law which were central to the world of practice, but which were often regarded as marginal in university teaching. The LSE was then home to pioneering scholars in a number of fields, including Otto-Kahn-Freund in labour law, G.S.A. Wheatcroft in tax law, L.C.B. Gower in company law, J. A. G. Griffith and Stanley de Smith in public law, and S.F.C. Milsom in legal history. The LSE was the leading law school in which new ideas were being tried out, and new lines of publication were coming forth.

Bill did his bar finals in the first year of his teaching at LSE, followed by a pupillage, which enabled him to practice occasionally at the bar in later years. However, it was already clear to him that he wanted a career in teaching law, rather than in practising it. Like his colleagues at the LSE, he was interested in promoting new subjects not known in law schools, and many of his publications arose from the teaching he was engaged with. His first book, The Jury (1968), was part of a series published by Penguin Books which was intended to describe the workings of the law in various areas of law in a more socially realistic was than was the case with abstract treatments. The subject suggested itself to Bill as a result of his teaching the English Legal System, while book itself grew out of a five-year interdisciplinary Jury Project based at the LSE, which sought to explore empirically how the jury worked. Bill’s innovative teaching at the LSE also laid the foundations for the two major strands of his later research interests, intellectual property and modern legal history.

When Bill started teaching, intellectual property was not taught in English universities.  Aware of its importance in the German legal curriculum, Otto Kahn-Freund invited T.A. Blanco White – a patent law practitioner who was also Bill’s pupil-master - to teach an LLM course on the subject. With the number of students opting for this non-qualification subject being embarrassingly small at first, it was left to Bill to develop the course, first for the LLM and then for the LLB. His book, Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyright, Trademarks & Allied Rights grew out of this teaching. Published in 1981, the book was written up after Bill had spent a sabbatical year in 1978/79 at the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property in Munich, which gave him the time to draw together his ideas and materials on the subject. In this book, he sought to bring together all the major subdivisions of what could be considered as intellectual property law - for each of which specialist practitioner literature existed - and to treat them as part of a single subject. This was a pioneering book, which led to the growth of intellectual property courses in many universities, and the flourishing of a wider literature. Bill continued to update the book (now in its ninth edition), and in 2004, he published his Clarendon Law Lectures, Intellectual Property: Omnipresent, Distracting, Irrelevant?

In 1989, Bill published Law and Society in England, 1750-1950. This book arose from a project which he had developed with Geoffrey Clark in the mid-1960s, to introduce students to the modern history of the English legal system and its law. Both men felt that legal education had to be wider than simple training for the profession. They thought that a contextual history could show students that case law was best understood by putting it into its own surroundings, and that such a study would make students question views of law which see it as composed of timeless principles. After Clark’s untimely death from cancer in 1972, Bill continued working on the book by himself, while also teaching a course on Legal and Social Change, 1750-1950. While Bill drew on some of Clark’s early drafts, the book which was published in their joint names in 1989 was in effect the product of Bill’s research and writing over a period of 20 years.

By 1990, Bill had spent almost his entire academic career so far at the LSE, interrupted in 1968-70 by a sabbatical year in Adelaide and one year as a Reader at Queen Mary College. Having missed two of the most turbulent years in the School’s history, Bill returned in 1970 when he was appointed to the Chair of English Law at LSE. He took a very active part in the life of the School, acting as Chairman of the Appointments Committee and Vice-Chairman of the Academic Board. He was also a member of the editorial committee of the LSE-based Modern Law Review from 1965 until 2002, when he was appointed a member of the journal’s supervisory Editorial Board. When he left the LSE in 1990, it was to succeed his friend and former colleague Toby Milsom in a Chair in Cambridge, where he became a fellow (and later President) of Magdalene College. His passion for educational innovation continued here. At a time when Cambridge had yet to appoint its first Professor of European law, and when there was still a measure of scepticism among Law Faculty members towards the European Union, Bill became the first Director of Cambridge’s Centre for European Legal Studies. He had always been interested in the comparative - and particularly European - dimensions of Intellectual Property law, and had (in 1989) been appointed as an external academic member of the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property. Responding to the initiative of the Polish born judge, HH George Dobry, Bill also helped in 1992 to found the British Law Centre, as a joint venture between the University of Cambridge and the University of Warsaw to teach English law in the English style to Polish lawyers and law students, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bill continued to be the Academic Director of this programme, and oversaw its expansion into many more countries in central and eastern Europe. It was in recognition of this that he was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 2013.

While in Cambridge, Bill also completed his last major new work. On arriving in his new university, he was asked by Sir John Baker, the general editor of the Oxford History of the Laws of England, to bring together a team of six authors to write two volumes of the history, covering the period 1820-1914. The team he assembled included two scholars he had previously taught at the LSE, Stuart Anderson and Keith Smith, who had both published important monographs on the history of English law in the nineteenth century. By the time the work was complete, in 2010, the work had swollen to three volumes. Besides writing numerous sections of the work - on the history of family law, on labour law, on intellectual property and on international and imperial law - Bill also co-ordinated the overall project, ensuring its comprehensiveness and coherence.

Bill’s remarkable career was marked by numerous awards and recognitions. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1984, and was made an honorary QC in 1997. In 1997, he was also awarded an LLD by the University of Cambridge, in recognition of his work in intellectual property and legal history. In the following year, he was made a Bencher of Gray’s Inn. He also retained strong links with the LSE, where he was made an honorary fellow in 1997, as well as being a member of the Court of Governors of the School after his move to Cambridge. He has left remarkable legacies in both legal education and legal scholarship. He will be long remembered not only for those legacies, but also for his sharp mind, his wry sense of humour and his personal modesty.

Michael Lobban, Professor of Legal History, LSE Law School