Bunch-Hellemans, The patent device, a necessary means to development

A patent is a capitalist device that like many great ideas works on a [seemingly] paradoxical principle: The way to spread the benefits of an invention is to restrict the number of people who can exploit it [since otherwise there would barely exist a motive for a person or company to work and innovate].

Other forms of intellectual property are protected in different ways. A scientific discovery, which is intended to be shared by everyone, is covered by informal agreement in the scientific community granting “ownership” with priority. No legal rights are deemed possible. A trademark or trade name can be registered and protected, but that is solely for the protection of the owner.

Copyright is closer in concept to patent, but is much more concerned with protecting structure and substance of thought than it is with providing a monopoly on an idea or a structure. Indeed, ideas are not copyrightable; only their expression and arrangement can be copyrighted. Ideas for inventions, however, are the basis of monopoly; and monopoly is the original purpose of the patent.

Capitalism and the middle class were babies of the Renaissance, but they did not become adult ideas until the Industrial Revolution. Patents have the same history, starting in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Queen Elizabeth I may have been the first British monarch to issue monopolies, which included but were not limited to patents. By the time of James I, the business of royal monopolies had gotten out of hand, and a succession of efforts to control monopolies, which treated inventions differently from other monopolies, had the somewhat inadvertent effect of creating the first English Patent Law, although it was not codified as such until late in the 19th century, after the example of the Patent Law in the United States.

By the time the U.S. Constitution was being written, the Founding Fathers had a good philosophical grasp of intellectual property, and provisions regarding it were included: Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power “To promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Almost as soon as the Constitution was ratified, Congress proceeded to set up a patent law to protect monopolies on inventions. By 1836 the U.S. Patent Office was functioning effectively, and it soon became apparent that invention fared better under the U.S. system than under any other. A monopoly for a limited time on a specific invention encouraged people to invent, knowing they could be protected, and enabled them to sell rights to others who had the capital or existing trade to manufacture and promote an invention.

In 1883 Great Britain consolidated its patent laws along U.S. lines and the International Convention in Paris worked out a way to handle patents in its many signatory nations. The European Patent Organization of 1953 was among several agreements that were precursors to the European Community. Today there are effective ways for an inventor to file a patent once in one country and, with suitable payments and searches, have it accepted in nations around the world.


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