The Patent System

A cook in Ancient Greece is thought to be the first person to be granted what we now think of as a patent.  The cook had developed a new dish and was granted exclusive rights to this dish for a year.

In England, letters of patents were a decree by the monarch granting monopoly powers for trade.  They were often abused and later public outcry led to restrictions on what could receive a letters patent.

The modern patent system was created in Italy in the 15th Century.  The patents could only be applied to original creations and protection would be provided for 10 years.  As Italians emigrated, other countries developed similar systems.

Over time, patent systems began to become more specific as to what deserved a patent and how patent disparities would be resolved.  The U.S. Constitution provides for patent protection as an enumerated right.  The U.S. Congress passed the first legislation governing patent practices in 1790.  The U.S. Patent Office was created in 1802.

Since the mid-19th Century, patent rights have become criticized by those believing in free trade.  As technology has advanced, the issue of social justice and patents has also become prominent (e.g. should monopoly powers be granted for life-saving medicines).  There is also the issue of what can be patented (e.g. life forms, discoveries vs. inventions, software).  There are additional challenges to patent protection as the international economy has emerged.  Patent issues are often a major concern in international trade agreements.

Historically, people of color and women have not benefited from the patent system as much as white men.  In fact, women and people of color have been banned from patent rights in the past.

The rise of the free-culture movement has become a threat to patent rights.  The free-culture movement advocates for the freedom to use the creative works of others without compensation.  Their argument is that overly restrictive patent protections perpetuate a system of economic privilege and are anti-democratic.

Fundamentally, the patent system is an invention of societies around the world.  It has evolved over time as any invention has evolved.  Ultimately, all inventions fall out of use and are replaced by new approaches.  Is it time for a new beginning for patents?

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“Patents are like fertilizer.  Applied wisely and sparingly, they can increase growth.  But if you apply too many chemicals, or make patents too strong, then you can leach the land, making growth more difficult.”  Alex Tabarrok (economist)

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