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A History of Patents
From Ancient Greece to modern battles
The History of Patents
I’ve been looking into the history of patents and was surprised to discover that the idea was cooked
up by the Greeks – almost literally. Yes, there is documentary evidence which suggests that over 2,500 years ago it
was possible to patent a culinary dish. This was in the Greek city of Sybaris – the place that gave the name to
sybarites – lovers of luxury.
It was another two thousand years after the Greeks before patents starting to crystallize. According
to the English publication ‘Law Quarterly Review (1896)’, a certain John Kempe and his Company was granted a
letters patent by King Edward III in 1331, whereas the first known Italian patent was granted by the Republic of
Florence in 1421 to a Filippo Brunelleschi (although Italy as a coherent political entity did not then exist).
So, what exactly did these patents cover and for how long were they granted?
• Training (services) - Kempe and Company for 1 year
• A barge with lifting gear (goods) - Brunelleschi for 3 years
• Stained Glass (process) - Henry VI of England to John of Utynam for 20 years
We can see that the scope was quite wide, although by this time cooking recipes had been dropped,
although it’s worth noting that some food production processes can be patented even today.
Modern patent law as we understand it didn’t really start taking shape until the late 15th Century. Let’s take a
look now at some of the key events in modern development and the timeline.
Modern patent law has its roots in the city state of Venice, with the so-called Venetian Statute of
The Venetian patents revolved mainly around glass making, and the migration of glassmakers to other countries led
to pressure for patent protection in the countries where those artisans settled. There were other craft guilds
which also enjoyed patent protection.
From the 15th Century on, the law and concept of patents underwent almost continuous refinement.
Here’s a timeline of the most notable developments:
• 1555: King Henry II of France initiated the publication of descriptions of patents (after patent
• 1624: The English Statute of Monopolies specified that patents could only be granted for so-called ‘projects
of new invention’.
• 1641: The first patent was granted in North America by the Massachusetts General Court.
• 1718: In England, James Puckle's patent for a machine gun was one of the first to satisfy the requirement
that the ‘patentee must by an instrument in writing describe and ascertain the nature of the invention and the
manner in which it is to be performed’ – that is, a specification.
• 1729: The first Digest of patent ‘specifications’ was published in France. Later Digests were published
occasionally, up to 60 years after expiry of the patent.
• 1790: The first Patent Act of the U.S. Congress was passed.
• 1791: The modern French patent system was enacted during the French Revolution
What about the legal aspects – people and companies fighting to protect their patents? If there’s a
law, there’s an argument, for sure.
Notable Early Patent Battles
The history of patents is riddled with legal disputes involving the leading inventors of the day
through to huge ($Billion) patent battles today, for example Apple versus Samsung. What were the big patent battles
of the early days?
There was a legal battle over James Watt's 1796 patent application for his invention of the steam
engine. The result was that an important principle was established in that ‘valid patents could be granted for
improvements in a known machine’ (UK Intellectual Property Office).
This legal spat also determined that it was possible to patent an idea or principle, on the basis of
limited disclosure whether on paper or concealed within a practical device. The new legal framework for patents
cascaded internationally to countries with similar legal antecedents – principally those which had a past as (or
were currently) United Kingdom Colonies.
The lawyers were kept very busy making money as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the United
Kingdom and a huge flow of patents were granted. What lawyers call ‘case law’ developed quickly but a major shift
in the concept of patents was imminent. This change was so fundamental as to deserve being called a paradigm
A Paradigm Shift
A patent was seen as a way of making money through exploiting an invention (and the definition of
‘invention’ was stretched almost criminally in some cases). Then, towards the end of the 18th Century a paradigm
shift occurred. The novel concept of an ‘intellectual property right’ (‘IPR’) was developed by an outstanding
philosopher, John Locke. This led to further changes in English Patent Law.
It was a powerful concept but the ‘law of unintended consequences’ came into play. Innovation through continual
improvement during a patent’s life was prevented and competition was stifled as the lawyers got busy once again. To
be fair, this was due to inventors seeking to protect their inventions in the light of the changed laws, but more
change was afoot!
A fight started over the fundamental philosophy of patents, led, surprisingly, by some of the leading
inventors of the time.
A Challenge to the Philosophy of Patent Law
Locke’s concept of IPR led in the mid 19thCentury to a widespread debate and active campaign for
abolition of patent laws. The campaign was founded on the principle of active competition and free trade concepts.
The movement gained momentum across Europe but ultimately failed.
Nevertheless some important points had been scored. As a result changes were made to the legal
framework with the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852. Since then, patent law has continued to evolve, and
international conventions have been established to achieve some sort of consistency of the law. However, modern
research and technology is throwing up new challenges and the future of patent law promises to be very
What of the Future?
The 20th Century saw changes arising from the growth of the pharmaceutical sector and other
technologies. The conceptual basis of patents is under challenge as the human genome is explored
and the issue of patenting genes is debated. Questions revolve around whether discovery of a gene is an invention
and whether gene patents encourage or stifle research.
The debate is certain to continue as the clinical use of genomics is further expanded and the history
timeline will continue to record significant changes.
© 2015 James Marinero
March 7, 2015
James Marinero writes thrillers revolving around the sea, espionage, action and technology in the 21st
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