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Patent History

Patent History

Patent history : where it came from and where it's going

The idea of allowing an inventor exclusive use of their own invention has been around for a very long time. It was in 15 th century Italy that patent history began, but it was with the growth of commerce and technical innovation that it really took hold through Europe , particularly with the increase in shipping in the Elizabethan era. At the same time, it became ever more important for new expertise to be shared - hence the limitation of English patent rights to 14 years. Nowadays, the duration of a patent is 20 years, both in the UK and the US , which institutionalized patenting and copyrighting in the drawing up of the Constitution at the end of the 18 th century.

Today, patent issuing is relevant to every country with an industrial infrastructure. Although patent law - particularly the duration of the patent - varies from country to country there is an international agreement, the Patent Co-operation Treaty, intended to make applications for international patents less complicated. More than 100 countries have signed up to it. There are other ways to protect intellectual property - which is what the idea protected by a patent really is - including copyrighting and trademarks. But if you can acquire one, patents are the most legally forceful of the lot.


Today, patent history is still being made. But that legal force is being sought in avenues inconceivable to 15 th century Italian traders - or even the lawmakers of the early 20 th century. In fact, it could be said that the world has gone patent crazy. Even genes, the very essence of physical life, are being targeted. The issue of the patenting of genes is interesting, not just for the scary Brave New Worldliness of it, but because it highlights how the function of patent law is changing. Patents were envisaged, all those centuries ago, as an encouragement to human innovation and not as a way of staking claim to nature. Intellectual property they might be, property in a Marxist sense they were not. An exception to the conventional thinking concerning monopolies, patents nonetheless have a limited life span so that the knowledge they protect eventually becomes public property. That's if they are granted at all - last century patents were refused on newly discovered metals because these were felt to be part of nature and thus the property of all human beings.

Now, however, the exponential proliferation of biotechnology and the increasing global power of business mean that, brave or not, we are definitely living in a new world. The rush to patent scientific discoveries (and computing technology) is year on year becoming more analogous to a gold rush - and that property, as Native Americans might argue, really was theft. Universities, ideally a bastion of independent research, also use patenting for various reasons and it has been suggested that there is increasing pressure to conduct research that will lead to patentable discoveries. Patent history is becoming patent future. It's up to us how bright it is.