Development of the patent system
When you take out a patent, you are engaging with a legal and economic system that dates back to renaissance Venice. Although it is probable that various kingdoms or localities around Europe were in the practice of granting official monopolies of one kind or another, the earliest known patent system was enacted in early renaissance Venice. The Venetian Patent Statute, as it is known, was enacted on 19 March 1474 as a way to encourage invention and innovation. The fundamental tenants of the modern patent system were described in this document: monopoly rights of use and acknowledgment to the inventor, in exchange for full disclosure to the public, leading prominent patent scholar Bruce Bugbee to declare that “the international patent experience of nearly 500 years has merely brought amendments or improvements upon the solid core established in Renaissance Venice” +.
We turn next to England, whose legal system broadly, and the patent system, in particular, Australia inherited upon colonisation and Federation. By the time of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), the granting of official monopolies – called “letters patent” – at the discretion of the Crown had been well established. This was done mainly to raise money and reward the monarch’s favourites rather than as a codified system for encouraging innovation and invention. This system grew so chaotic that it actively impeded the activity of English commerce and industry, and so by the time of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, the English Parliament repealed the “letters patent” system and passed the next significant milestone document of patent history, the Statute of Monopolies 1623.
The Statute of Monopolies is so fundamental to the patent system that it is still referred to in contemporary Australian patent legislation (Patents Act 1990 (Cth), s18(1)(a)) despite being written 400 years ago and half the world away. This statute provides the definition of what is or is not patentable subject matter (the specifics of which we needn’t go into at this time). It also provided the foundations for the practice of patent law for the next 200 years or so, buoyed up by a growing body of common law. It was in the mid-19th century that any further acts of Parliament would begin to codify what became the modern patent system.
Treaties and agreements
Arguably, the most impactful developments in patent law of relatively more recent times are the succession of international treaties and agreements since the late 19th century. The Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property 1883 came first, and is still in force today, often referred to as simply ‘the convention’. Australia became a signatory in 1925, though it should be noted that we were already a participant in the agreement as a colony of the United Kingdom since the convention’s inception. The convention grants international recognition of a patent’s priority date: the date of earliest filing in one convention country is the date of earliest filing in all of them. Subsidiary to the Paris Convention is the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) of 1970. The PCT significantly reduces the administrative burden of filing in multiple PCT countries. However, each country still has the right to accept or reject individual patents regardless of their treatment in other countries. The third pillar of international patent agreements is the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) 1995. TRIPS acts to standardise the laws relating to patents in the various signatory countries to encourage the international trade of intellectual property further.
Notable patent owners
It is not just white-coated intellectuals working diligently in dusty workshops who are granted patents. Many people famous for their artistic or other achievements hold patents. The list includes, but is not limited to, musicians like Eddie Van Halen and Prince, directors James Cameron and George Lucas, and actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Hedy Lamarr. It is well known that Albert Einstein himself worked as a patent examiner, but he also held roughly 50 patents himself in a wide variety of subject matter.
So when filing a patent, you are not just protecting your intellectual property; you are joining an elite group of notable people and taking a place in history.
+ Bugbee, Bruce (1964). Genesis Of American Patent and Copyright. Washington DC: Public Affairs Press. p. 24.