Patent FAQs

The History of Patents

The word patent comes from the Latin ‘litterae patentes’, meaning an open letter. Such letters were used by medieval monarchs to confer rights and privileges. With a royal seal, the letters served as proof of those rights, for all to see.

While the first system for patenting inventions cannot be attributed to any one country, it is generally acknowledged that the first informal system was developed in Renaissance Italy. This system was introduced into the rest of Europe by Venetian glass-blowers to protect their skills against those of local workers.

The first recorded patent of invention was granted to John of Utynam. In 1449, he was awarded a 20-year monopoly for a glass-making process previously unknown in England (subsequently, he supplied glass for the windows of Eton College Chapel, UK). In return for his monopoly, John of Utynam was required to teach his process to native Englishmen. That same function of passing on information is now fulfilled by the publication of a patent specification.

In North America the colonies adopted a similar system of limited monopolies. Following the revolution in 1788 Article I, section 8 of the Constitution was ratified:

‘The Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writing and discoveries’.

More recently, during the 1980s, we have seen the development of supra-national patent-issuing authorities – the European Patent Office and World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO). These bodies enable patent applications to be filed simultaneously in a number of countries. In 1995, US patent law was changed following the GATT agreement to harmonise USPTO practice with the patent system in other countries.

This document Copyright Thomson Scientific © 2004

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