Patents: The Origins and The Mysteries

Patents are ubiquitous nowadays, but where did the notion of owning an idea come from? Although there is not abundant evidence, scholars believe patents first came into use in Ancient Greece. Some of the first recorded patents were issued in the fifteenth century to Venetian glassblowers, renowned for their unique techniques, used patents to protect the unique methods and style of their work from glassblowers throughout the rest of Europe. The Republic of Venice stated that new innovations “had to be communicated to the Republic to obtain the right to prevent others from using them.”

In 1449, one of the first formally recorded patents was registered in England to John of Utynam for his glass-making process. The patent had a duration of twenty years and granted him sole rights to the use of his novel technique. Interestingly, in payment for his patent, John of Utynam taught fellow English glass-makers his technique. English government saw patents as a useful tool to increase economic competition and encourage technological improvements—an opinion that holds true today. Unfortunately, the patent system in England soon became corrupt and became a source of income for the monarchy rather than a mechanism to support new innovations. Public outcry resulted in the Statute of Monopolies in 1624, which affirmed the tenets that patents must be novel, serve the public interest, and be time-limited-tenets that have influenced modern patent law worldwide.Patent Graphic

In North America, there was no formal system for filing patents prior to the creation of the constitution. Initially, inventors had to make individual appeals on a case by case basis to colonial governments, and those patents were unregulated and generally limited to within each state. By the late 18th century, states began to pass general patent laws that led to a more regulated patent approach, yet the process was still separated by state so a patent had to be filed in each state individually for full protections. The US federal government made sure to include similar regulations for the protection of ideas, which are included in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution passed in 1788. In 1790, the government introduced the United States Patent Act, which allowed for federal patent protection lasting for up to fourteen years for a novel, useful innovation. The first federal American patent filed was to Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for a method of making potash, which was a substance used to make soaps. According to some estimates, a patent at this time cost between four and five dollars. By 1793, the Act was revised by Thomas Jefferson to more clearly define what is patentable: “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter.”

Despite the filing of only three patents during 1790, but filings soon skyrocketed to a total of 10,000 by 1836. As the number of patents grew, the office moved records to a temporary location while a safer, fireproof building was built. Unfortunately, the temporary location caught fire and many details of the earliest patents were lost. While most of this information was lost, some have been recovered over time through old family records or university archives. All patents lost to the fire, or the patents filed prior to 1836, are called “X- patents.”  In current times more than 600,000 patent applications are filed annually with more than 300,000 granted annually with all of this work handled by a staff of more than 10,000 employees at the USPTO. While the patent process might be more clear logistically, it is still full of disagreement, delays, and complications.