The History of Patents

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Main article: History of patent law

The Venetian Patent Statute, issued by the Senate of Venice in 1474, and one of the earliest statutory patent systems in the world.

Although there is some evidence that some form of patent rights was recognized in Ancient Greece in the Greek city of Sybaris,[8][9] the first statutory patent system is generally regarded to be the Venetian Patent Statute of 1450. Patents were systematically granted in Venice as of 1450, where they issued a decree by which new and inventive devices had to be communicated to the Republic in order to obtain legal protection against potential infringers. The period of protection was 10 years.[10] These were mostly in the field of glass making. As Venetians emigrated, they sought similar patent protection in their new homes. This led to the diffusion of patent systems to other countries.[11]

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.[12] By the 16th century, the English Crown would habitually abuse the granting of letters patent for monopolies.[13] After public outcry, King James I of England (VI of Scotland) was forced to revoke all existing monopolies and declare that they were only to be used for “projects of new invention”. This was incorporated into the Statute of Monopolies (1624) in which Parliament restricted the Crown’s power explicitly so that the King could only issue letters patent to the inventors or introducers of original inventions for a fixed number of years. The Statute became the foundation for later developments in patent law in England and elsewhere.

James Puckle‘s 1718 early autocannon was one of the first inventions required to provide a specification for a patent.

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.

The English 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. In 1641, Samuel Winslow was granted the first patent in North America by the Massachusetts General Court for a new process for making salt.[16]

U.S. patents granted, 1790–2010.[17]

The modern French patent system was created during the Revolution in 1791. Patents were granted without examination since inventor’s right was considered as a natural one. Patent costs were very high (from 500 to 1,500 francs). Importation patents protected new devices coming from foreign countries. The patent law was revised in 1844 – patent cost was lowered and importation patents were abolished.

The first Patent Act of the U.S. Congress was passed on April 10, 1790, titled “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts”.[18] The first patent was granted on July 31, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for a method of producing potash (potassium carbonate).


Six significant moments in patent history

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By Matt Kwong

(This article was produced independently of Reuters News. It was created by the public relations department of Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property & Science division, and Reuters Brand Content Solutions.)The concept of patenting reaches back to ancient times, though there is some dispute over which innovator succeeded as the first intellectual-property pioneer. As early as 600 B.C., according to British intellectual property expert Robin Jacob, a patent was documented for “some kind of newfangled loaf” of bread.

Here’s a look at some historical milestones in the long history of patents:


Some historians date the first industrial patent filing back to 1421, attributing it to Filippo Brunelleschi, a Florence architect who developed a crane system for shipping and transporting marble from the Carrara mountains.

John of Utynam, a Flemish glassmaker, is considered the first person on record to have been awarded an English patent in 1449. Granted by King Henry VI, the exclusive rights gave John a 20-year monopoly on producing stained glass — a technique that was until that point unknown in England.


By 1474, the Venetian Senate set up the first patent law articulating the concept of intellectual property and enshrining the importance of protecting inventors’ rights. The Venetian Act is cited as the foundation for modern international patent statutes and was a “huge breakthrough in Renaissance Venice,” said Craig Nard, director of the Intellectual Property Center at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University.

“Everything we hold dear as sort of fundamental principles in today’s patent system can be found in that Venetian statute,” he said.


During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, the royal court bestowed patents on well-established techniques or commodities (vinegar and playing cards, for instance) to favored courtiers, Nard said. This patronage raised some civil unrest, and administration of patents was transferred to common law courts.

“In 1624, parliament had enough of this abuse of practice,” he said. “So they enacted this Statute of Monopolies in Section 6 that said we’re OK with patents, but you have to grant them on inventions that are actually novel.”

The rollback of the Crown’s powers governed English patent law for more than two centuries and forms the foundation of the modern British patent system, as well as a model for U.S. Patent Law.


The 1787 U.S. Constitution laid the groundwork for granting patent rights to inventors in Article One, section 8, clause 8.

“Our founders actually contemplated intellectual property, patents and copyrights, which I think was remarkable,” Nard said.

A year after the constitution was ratified came America’s first Patent Act, on April 10, 1790.

More major reform came with the Patent Act of 1952, which further strengthened the patent system by introducing “non-obviousness” of procedure or product as a requirement for obtaining a patent.

“The 1952 act provided a greater menu of vehicles to show infringement,” said Nard, who described the revised act as the “backbone” of modern patent laws.


The 1980 decision in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty answers the question of whether living organisms could be patented, a ruling that Nard credited for launching the biotech industry.

The dispute arose when microbiologist Anand Chakrabarty, who was working for General Electric, filed a patent application for a genetically engineered bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil.

“It was controversial because the patent examiner denied the bacteria under the patent code because he said life is not patentable,” Nard explained.

The case was appealed and reversed, and then brought to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Warren Burger held that Chakrabarty’s bacteria was indeed patentable.

“For the Chief Justice, the issue was not living or non-living. The issue was whether Dr. Chakrabarty’s invention did indeed have markedly different characteristics than that which occurred naturally. And indeed, it was not something you would find in nature,” Nard said. “Right there, the court gave a huge boost, as you can imagine, to the biotech industry.”


Some 1.98 million patent applications were filed in 2012 at the world’s five largest patent offices, with China filing 526,412 applications, surpassing the U.S.’s 503,582 patents.

China’s State Intellectual Property Office overtook the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as the largest patent office in the world, an outcome forecast in 2005 by Thomson Reuters researchers.


 James Watt and his Patent on the Steam Engine