Ancient Innovation and First Patents

British intellectual property expert Robin Jacob feels that the concept of the patent dates back to 600 BC. The patent in question was for “some kind of newfangled loaf of bread.” As far back as 500 BC, chefs in Sybaris had the option to have up to a year of profit on a unique dish that they created. This may very well be the first known reference of intellectual property protection.

Several hundred years later, Vitruvius, a Roman judge in ancient Alexandria, tried several poets and found them guilty of stealing the material of other poets. After that ruling, Romans debated different types of ownership for intellectual property, although they didn't create laws to govern the matter. 

It wasn't until the guild system in the Middle Ages that the protection of intellectual property through the use of patents started to take hold.  While patents weren't expressly used, the guilds did fiercely protect the techniques of their chosen craft and prevented the information from getting out to the public at large. 

The Venetian Act of 1474

The Venetian Act of 1474 is the first known codified patent system in Europe. Patents were already in existence, but they had no set standards. The Act streamlined the patent process and made it much simpler for someone to apply for, categorize, and define their patent in a defensible manner

Prior to the Act, patents were awarded on an individual basis and in response to an individual's request for protection. Implementation of the Act made it much easier for someone to get protection for their creation, but the patent had to be for something that was new, ingenious, had a purpose and was useful. This standard set the bar for the centuries to come and is still the current standard for obtaining a patent from the United States Patent and Trademarks Office.

In the two centuries following the act, the system of patents spread across Europe. England developed the system to its fullest. There are records to suggest that letters patent existed in England prior to the Venetian Act, and the English system developed without much influence from the Venetian system.

The 1624 British Statute of Monopolies

James I made a royal proclamation in 1624 that formally abolished the Brehon laws and established English common law in its place. This was incorporated into the Statute of Monopolies 1623 that restricted the power of the monarch so that the reigning monarch could only issue letters patents to the inventors of an original invention for a specific time period. 

The reason for this move by Parliament was to prevent the monarch from bestowing letters patents on common techniques and commodities to favorite courtiers. The direct result of this kind of patronage was some minor civil unrest, and the administration of such letters was transferred to the courts of common law. The statute didn't fully end the abuse of the patent system by the monarch, but it does represent a crucial moment in patent law history.

First Patent Act of the US in 1790

Patent law in the American colonies was handled in a disorganized way. Until the early 1780s, there were no general laws for patent rights, then some states began enforcing their own statutes. 1790 saw the passing of the first US Patent Act. But it only existed for three years and was replaced by the Patent Act of 1793. The Act allowed the issuance of a patent to anyone who had invented or discovered any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device. The patent act functioned on an examination system and departed from the English system of registration. The patent would only be granted after it was approved by two out of three patent board members.

Much has changed since the US Patent Act of 1790, but the standards for getting a patent have withstood the test of time. An applicant still has to prove they have something that's worthy of being patented and protected. 

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