Monday, April 10, 2006

The origins of patent law

Hat tip to Brad DeLong for pointing us to the new blog by Greg Mankiw.

One of his posts prompted me to make the following observation:

This article by Paul Romer is a great reference.

However, I have to take exception with his assertion that "The British invented patents and copyrights in the seventeenth century."

Aristotle in "Politics" criticizes what he says is a proposal by the architect Hippodamus of Miletus for the state to provide a system of rewards for those who make useful inventions. The first true patent law that we know of was an act passed by the Senate of Venice in 1474. It said in part,

"...every person who shall build any new and ingenious device in this City, not previously made in this Commonwealth, shall give notice of it to the office of our General Welfare Board when it has been reduced to perfection so that it can be used and operated. It being forbidden to every other person in any of our territories and towns to make any further device conforming with and similar to said one, without the consent and license of the author, for the term of ten years..."

Patent laws tended to spread throughout Europe from Italy after that, often with the express intention of luring Italian glass makers; most of the first patents granted by other governments were issued to Italians. Venice was followed by patent acts in various German principalities and France; then they were introduced in England by Elizabeth I's chief minister, William Cecil the Lord Burghley, again with the explicit intention of luring continental craftsmen to England.

James I abandoned the role of patents as rewards for new inventions, issuing them instead as monopolies for cronies on almost any kind of trade, prompting Parliament to pass the Statute of Monopolies of 1623, forbidding all grants of exclusive privileges, with a sole exception in section 6 for patents on new inventions to be issued "to the true and first inventor and inventors..." Similar laws were quickly picked up in the American colonies, and Massachusetts issued the first patent in America in 1641.

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