Patents have become a firmly established part of modern society. Virtually every organization of appreciable size or repute is building up their patent portfolio; identifying the fostering and protection of innovation as one of the key factors towards overall progress. With the general public also becoming increasingly aware of the intricacies involved with intellectual property in general and patents in particular, the internet has become a popular battlefield for feisty debates and opinionated flame wars. With patents being as well-entrenched in the community psyche as they are, we thought it would be apt to take readers on a patent peregrination: tracking down its origins and highlighting important checkpoints that have made patent law what it is today.
A Tale of Glass
Finding a starting point is arguably the trickiest part of this journey. No country can firmly lay claim to being forerunners in advocating patent policies. There are stories of patent-like programs being adopted as far back as 500 BC, in an Ancient Greek city called Sybaris.
“…encouragement was held out to all who should discover any new refinement in luxury, the profits arising from which were secured to the inventor for the space of a year.”
Keeping in view official records, it is widely accepted that the first informal patent system was adopted in Renaissance-fuelled Italy. Venetian glass-blowers were granted monopolies when they migrated to other areas of Europe, to protect their skills against those of local workers. By the 15th century, England had implemented a system whereby the Crown gave special privileges to entrepreneurs in order to help protect their imported inventions, until they proved to be sustainable arms of the industry.
The first recorded patent was granted to Flemish-born John of Utynam in 1449, who was bestowed with a 20-year monopoly for a glass-making process hitherto unknown in England (this same process was used to supply glass to Eton College Chapel in the UK). In return, John was asked to teach the process to native Englishmen;thus upholding the ‘exclusive monopoly in return for public disclosure’ canon that patents follow to this day.
Vested Interests and Ramifications
As the British patent system became more prevalent, mismanagement and abuse of power reared its two-pronged head. Under Elizabeth I and her successor James I, many patents were awarded for inventions and trades that were not new (for example, salt trade). In addition, patents were sometimes conferred upon royal contacts and yes-men, so as to subtly replenish royal coffers.
Public dissent soon snowballed into outrage, and judicial pressure forced James I to cancel all existing patent privileges and form The Statute of Monopolies in 1623. This statute stated that-
“any letters patent and grants of privilege for the term of fourteen years or under, hereafter to be made, of the sole working or making of any manner of new manufactures within this realm, to the true and first inventor of such manufactures which others at the time of making such letters patents and grants shall not use”
It was thus that the much-prized novelty aspect of patent law made its first appearance, and the bedrock for all future patent doctrines was laid down.
Chisel-work and Baby Steps
Once the basic framework was in place, it was only a matter of time before other subsets of patent principles came into being. Under the reign of Queen Anne, it was made mandatory for the applicant of the patent to give a written description of his invention and a method for its implementation; bringing the concept of enablement into light. The requirement for specifications soon followed, with James Puckle’s 1718 patent for a machine-gun being the first one to adhere to it.
Another important facet surfaced while litigating Watt’s 1796 patent for steam engines, after which it was decreed that valid patents could be given for improvements to a known machine. These additions along with other amendmentsacted as small but surefiresteps towards drafting a comprehensive patent policy.
Treaties and the Future
While national patent policies were individually evolving, it was asynchronous growth with no roots of unification present. All of that changed with The Paris Conventionin 1883, which truly heralded an internationalization of the patenting process.
According to this treaty, nationals of any of the member-states would enjoy non-discriminatory treatment over their patents after filing in any of the concerned member-states. The treaty currently encompasses 174 member nations, and with the development of supra-national patent issuing authorities like the European Patent Office (EPO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the streamlining of patent laws continues unabated.
However, the patent framework is far from perfect as things stand. Just like that sunlit day in Ancient Greece or glass-hued Venetian towns, the current patent system has its fair share of loopholes, misunderstandings and ambivalence. Inconsistencies beget change, and the only thing more certain than there being things to change, is that attempts will be made to change them. It is with that sanguine statement that we conclude this patent chronicle. Feel free to recount some interesting tidbits from patent history in the comments section below!
Author: Abhishek Iyer, Hourglass Research