US Patents - A Brief History
The US Patent Office

To understand US patents it helps to have a smidgen of understanding of the history of patent law and the history especially of US patents.

The longer history of patent law is somewhat nebulous. There are claims that some aspects of patent law originated in medieval times and that may be the case. There were recorded instances of medieval rulers granting monopolies to "inventors", although whether this resulted from a submitted written patent is problematical.

Venice, in 1474 passed what some consider the first known patent law that granted inventors exclusive rights to their inventions.

England passed the Statute of Monopolies in 1624. The Statute of Monopolies, for the first time in history, defined the following: that inventions had to be “new” to attain a monopoly, and that a monopoly would be granted only for a limited period of time (in this case 14 years). These two aspects helped define the United States Patent Law. The emphasis on this development was on aiding society in getting access to new inventions.

In 1791 a new French Patent Law passed that was weighted more on the inventor and emphasized the invention as the inventor's property. Eventually US Patent Law today adopted both streams of thought. US Patent Law can be said to primarily linked though to British approaches to patent law.

Even before the US Constitution was written there are recorded instances of citizens being granted protection for their inventions. During the colonial era, intellectual property in America was actually owned by Great Britain. But it was possible for citizens to get protection by requesting protection from government authorities, depending on the state.

The foundations of US patent law were firmly established with the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Article I, section 8, the U.S. Constitution states:

    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 writings and discoveries.

This led, in 1790, to the drafting of the first US Patent Act. The Patent Act empowered any two of: The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General to grant patents. This Act granted patents for 14 years to “useful and important” and new inventions. Importantly, a description of the invention had to be submitted to attain a patent. Since the Patent Law's inception in 1790, the Patent Act has been periodically amended. One of the first statutory bars to the Patent Act stated that an invention which had been publicly used could not be granted a patent; however, this was modified to allow for a grace period.

In 1793 the first Patent Act was modified, by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to include a definition of a patent which persists today, “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter."

In the first three years, 55 patents were granted, and a milestone was reached on July 2, 1836 when a total of 10,000 patents had been granted.

On July 4, 1836 the Patent Office became a part of the State Department. After the transfer, all patent applications had to be submitted to the Patent Office. The Patent Office would determine the “novelty” of the invention and decide if a patent should be granted. At the same time, the law changed to allow for a 7-year extension to the 14-year limit on a patent. In this revision of the Patent Act, inventors had to detail their invention in their patent application.

On July 13, 1836, Patent Number 1 was granted. In 1836, The Patent Office also went back and renumbered all previous patents with a suffix "X". Prior to this, patents were listed by names and dates and not numbers. After the renumbering, the very first US Patent became Patent 1X. In December 15 of the same year, a fire demolished the Patent Office, and only 2,845 patents were recovered. This resulted in a law that required all patent applications to be submitted in doubles. This law for double copies of patent applications was dropped in 1870 when the Patent Office started printing.

In 1849, the Patent Office was transferred from the State Department to the Department of the Interior. At the same time, the definition of a patent was expanded to include that the invention applying for a Patent should be new, useful and also “non obvious” to other professionals in the same field.

The 1890 depression resulted in an unfavorable view of patents. The depression was marked by a strained economy in which patents were perceived as a method of promoting monopolies. This negative attitude towards patents led to the inception of the Sherman Antitrust Act. During the depression, many opposed patents, and this is depicted in the tendency of courts to invalidate patents. The conclusion of the depression also ended the negative attitudes towards patents; however, the Patent Law underwent opposition again in the Great Depression. This skepticism towards patents again returned after World War II in another period of economic depression.

In 1952, the basic structure of the modern Patent Law was laid out. In this amendment, an inventor had to describe not only his invention but also the basis for its infringement. Furthermore, an invention needed to be new and useful, as well as “non- obvious” to be granted a patent. This amendment, which required patents to be non-obvious, was implemented to keep individuals from taking ownership or taking away from the base pool of knowledge in a particular field.

In the 1980 and '90s the atmosphere once again became pro-patent. The patent was seen as not only a business need but also a means to protect inventors. Patents became important, and they began to signify the importance of technology, invention, and discovery to the US.

In 1982, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals was abolished, and patent cases were heard in the newly established Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit observed patents favorably and also started to provide more protection to their rightful owners.

Patent Law has developed ever since to support the vast amount of technology, inventions, and intellectual property in the US today.



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