Saturday, March 19, 2011

The First Patent Law

On March 19, 1474 the world’s first patent law was enacted in Venice.  That law granted patent protection, the right to exclude others from making, selling or using an invention, for 10 years.   Like the patent laws that came after it, the law was introduced to attract inventors and investors to Venice who would create new economic activities there.  

What is remarkable about this law is that, even though it is brief, it contains most of the elements of modern patent laws.  And the genius of it was that it cost the government nothing.  Here is what it said:

“There are in this city and also there come temporarily… men from different places1 and most clever minds, capable of devising and inventing all manner of ingenious contrivances.  And should it be provided, that the works and contrivances invented by them, others having seen them should not take their honor, men of such kind would exert their minds, [and] invent and make things which would be of no small utility and benefit our State2

Therefore… each person who will make in this city any new and ingenious contrivance, not made heretofore in our dominion3, as soon as it is reduced to perfection4, so that it can be used and exercised5, shall give notice of the same6…  It being forbidden to any other in any territory and place of ours to make any other contrivance in the form and resemblance thereof 7, without the consent of the author up to ten years8.  And, however, should anybody make it, the aforesaid author and inventor will have the liberty to cite him before any office of this city9, by which office the aforesaid who shall infringe be forced to pay him the sum of one hundred ducats10 [about $7,000 in today's money] and the [infringing] contrivance be immediately destroyed11.  Our government shall be at liberty to take and use in his need any of said contrivances, provided that no others than the authors shall exercise them12.”*

And here are the elements contained in many modern patent laws:

1.     Rights not limited to residents.
2.     Societal benefit in exchange for the grant of exclusivity.
3.     Invention must be novel within the city.
4.     Reduction to practice.
5.     The invention must be enabled.
6.     Disclosure of the invention is a condition of exclusivity.
7.     Infringement includes equivalents.
8.     A fixed term of protection (10 years) is provided.
9.     Infringement action before administrative (not criminal) bodies is provided.
10.  Damage award for infringement is prescribed.
11.  Infringing goods must be confiscated and destroyed.
12.  Eminent domain of intellectual property is limited to supply by inventor.

England followed with the Statute of Monopolies in 1623 under King James I, which declared that patents could only be granted for “projects of new invention.”  

In 1789, Article I, section 8 of the United States Constitution explicitly authorized patent laws in the United States “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

Do you have an invention?  We can help patent it for you.  See our web site at  

*Adapted from "Patents for Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology" by Philip W. Grubb, pp. 10-11, Oxford University Press, (1999).

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    The current law protects the inventor for a period of one year, during which he or she could use or sell their invention before filing for a patent. Some believed this provision allowed inventors to gauge the potential of their ideas, as well as to attract potential investment. That all should help reduce the backlog and waiting time for patent approval. Thanks a lot...

    Patent And Trademark Attorney