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  • Writer's pictureWinston Schultze

History of Patent Law | A Brief Overview

Intellectual Property may sound like a modern-world invention, but it has actually been around since the development of civilisation. So the history of patents goes all the way back to ancient times. However, there is some disagreement about who succeeded as the first person to create the idea of Intellectual Property.

Patent law has a rich and extensive history that began as early as 500 BCE, where chefs in Sybaris had the opportunity to enjoy a year of monopolised profit for a unique dish that they had created. This is possibly the first intellectual property protection reference

Several hundreds of years afterwards, Vitruvius, who served as a judge in Alexandria, tried and exposed several poets who were guilty of stealing the material of others in their field. From then on, Roman jurists discussed different types of ownership for intellectual works, although they still did not have any proper intellectual property laws.

Development of the modern patent system

Development in 15th century

The development of the modern patent system goes all the way back to the fifteenth century. Patents were systematically granted in Venice as of 1450. They issued a decree that new and inventive devices had to be communicated to the Republic to obtain legal protection against potential infringers. The period of protection was ten years. These were mainly in the field of glassmaking.

As Venetians (Citizens of Venice) emigrated, they sought similar patent protection in their new homes. This led to the diffusion of patent systems to other countries.

Development in 16th & 17th century

The actual development of the modern patent system occurred in the 16th century. King Henry II of France introduced the concept of publishing the description of an invention in a patent in 1555. The first patent "specification" was to inventor Abel Foullon for "Usaige & Description de l'holmetre", (a type of rangefinder.) However, the publication was delayed until after the patent expired in 1561. After that, patents were granted by the monarchy and by other institutions like the "Maison du Roi" and the Parliament of Paris. The novelty of the invention was examined by the French Academy of Sciences. Examinations were generally done in secret, with no requirement to publish a description of the invention.

On the other hand, the English patent system evolved from its early medieval origins into the first modern patent system that recognised intellectual Property in order to stimulate invention; this was the crucial legal foundation upon which the Industrial Revolution could emerge and flourish.

By the 16th century, the English Crown would habitually grant letters patent for monopolies to favoured persons (or people who were prepared to pay for them). This power was used to raise money for the Crown and was widely abused, as the Crown granted patents in respect of all sorts of common goods (salt, for example).

Consequently, the Court began to limit the circumstances in which they could be granted. Finally, after public outcry, James I of England was forced to cancel all existing monopolies and declare that they were only to be used for "projects of new invention".

This was incorporated into the 1624 Statute of Monopolies, in which Parliament restricted the Crown's power explicitly so that the King could only issue patent letters to the inventors or introducers of original inventions for a fixed number of years. It also voided all existing monopolies and dispensations. The Statute became the foundation for later developments in patent law in England and all around the globe where Britain exist. In 1641, Samuel Winslow was granted the first patent in North America by the Massachusetts General Court for a new process for making salt.

Development in 18th century

Important developments in patent law emerged during the 18th century through a slow process of judicial interpretation of the law. During the reign of Queen Anne, patent applications were required to supply a complete specification of the principles of operation of the invention for public access.

Patenting medicines was particularly popular in the mid-eighteenth century and then declined. However, legal battles around the 1796 patent taken out by James Watt for his steam engine established the principles that patents could be issued for improvements of an already existing machine and that ideas or principles without specific practical application could also legally be patented.

This legal system became the foundation for patent law in countries with a common law heritage, including the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In the Thirteen Colonies, inventors could obtain patents through petition to a given colony's legislature.

Towards the end of the 18th century, and influenced by the Philosophy of John Locke, the granting of patents began to be viewed as a form of intellectual property right, rather than simply the obtaining of economic privilege. However, a negative aspect of the patent law also emerged in this period - the abuse of patent privilege to monopolise the market and prevent improvement from other inventors. A notable example of this was the behaviour of Boulton & Watt in hounding their competitors such as Richard Trevithick through the courts and preventing their improvements to the steam engine from being realised until their patent expired.

Current System

There are technologies, bodies, and platforms like WIPO and Lead IP, that are revolutionising the IP and patent industry. So much has changed since the 18th century, and current patent law is designed to accommodate modern technology and allow the adaptation to future technological changes. Still, the standards for getting a patent have withstood the test of time. An applicant still has to prove they have something that's worthy of being patented and protected.

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