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Patents: History

    The concept of a patent is often traced back to mid 15th century England where a patent was granted by the King for stained glass manufacturing. Thus the notion of a state-granted monopoly was born. A century later the Crown routinely granted "letters patent" mostly for its own benefit and that of its friends. It is no wonder that some citizens in the rebellious colonies may have had a distaste for them. As mentioned in the Introduction, Thomas Jefferson needed some convincing before agreeing to include patent protection in the U.S. Constitution (see Article I Section 8).

    Still others indicate that the first patent was granted in Florence in 1421 and likewise point to a Venetian Patent statute of 1474 as early patent law. One thing is clear, patents were well established as a concept by the time of the first American colonies and there is some record of the debate that preceded their inclusion in the U.S. Constitution. James Madison had the following to say on the topic (Federalist #43):

    "The utility of the clause will scarcely be questioned. The copyright of authors has been solmnly adjudged, in Great Britain, to be a right of common law. The right to useful inventions seems with equal reason to belong to the inventors. The public good fully coincides in both cases with the claims of the individuals."

    At least some of Madison's colleagues were less sanguine about the prospect of patent monopolies but their complaints are now mere historical footnotes, since it is obvious that Madison's view prevailed. Congress was also apparently persuaded and over the next fifty years passed the patents acts of 1790, 1793 and 1836. The current controlling federal statute is Title 35 of the U.S. Code located here.

    Patent law has been, and remains, controversial, both nationally and internationally. It is also, of the big three (i.e. copyright, trademarks, and patents) the most arcane and arguably the least well understood by the public at large.

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