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Patent Numbers: An Aid for Dating Vintage Items
Patent Numbers: a Tool to Identify First Date of Production
Patent Systems in Medieval Times
In medieval times, the grant of exclusive rights "monopolies" by the sovereign was a convenient way for him to raise money without levying taxes. Such grants were common in many European countries.
The first deliberate act of economic policy to grant exclusive rights for a limited period seems to have been made in Venice in 1474.
It is probably not a coincidence that this occurred during a long war between Venice and the Turks during which Venice lost most of its trading empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, and consequently had to refocus its economy on manufacturing instead of trade.
Venice also adopted a number of other measures to establish and maintain preeminence in manufacture. This included laws to prohibit the emigration of skilled artisans as well as the export of certain materials. It also encouraged the immigration of skilled workers from other countries to Venice by providing them with a "tax holiday" during the initial two years following their arrival.
English patent law was a result of the English courts beginning to restrict the rights of the sovereign to grant monopolies. Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, the sovereign could only grant rights if they were for the introduction of a new industry to the country.
In 1624, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and as part of the skirmish between Parliament and the Crown leading up to the English Civil War, the English Parliament passed the statute of monopolies. This can be considered as the foundation for English patent law. The Crown was only allowed to distribute grants for inventions for limited periods and only for "manners of new manufacture" that were introduced into the realm by the recipient of the monopoly. The duration of grants was limited to 14 years, which corresponded to two training periods for craft apprentices. Such grants were, however, conditioned on their not being "mischievous to the state" (for example by raising prices of commodities) or "generally inconvenient".
As noted above the original English approach, which was followed in the American Constitution, was to place emphasis on the advantage to society as a whole of developing new inventions.
In comparison the French approach was totally different. Section 1 of the French law states: "All new discoveries are the property of the author; to assure the inventor the property and temporary enjoyment of his discovery, there shall be delivered to him a patent for five, ten or fifteen years". The emphasis here was on the inventor having property in his discovery - an emphasis on the rights in the invention rather than on the benefits to society.
Today this approach is of limited importance in the patent field but it is still significant in the area of copyright - where the Anglo Saxon approach is focused heavily on the bundle of economic rights associated with control over whether others are entitled to copy a work, whereas the French approach focuses more heavily on the moral rights of authors - a fact that is emphasized by the fact that the word generally used as the French translation of the word "Copyright" is "droit d'auteur" (literally Author's Rights).
Modern thinking on the rationale for a patent system effectively sees this as a contract between the invention and society at large. This was well expressed in a report to the French Chamber of Deputies in the debates preceding adoption of the French Patent Law of 1844 (a law that remained in effect with little change up to the 1960's):
"Every useful discovery is, in to Kant's words 'the presentation of a service rendered to Society'. It is, therefore, just that he who has rendered this service should be compensated by Society that received it. This is an equitable result, a veritable contract or exchange that operates between the authors of a new discovery and Society. The former supply the noble products of their intelligence and Society grants to them in return the advantages of an exclusive exploitation of their discovery for a limited period".
As Abraham Lincoln once put it "The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."
The United States Constitution, on which U.S. Patent Law depends, was drafted at the height of the industrial revolution at a time when the impact of patents was first being seriously felt in England.
The earliest grants of a patent for an invention in what is now the United States seems to have been by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640's. Although pre-independence patent custom in the American colonies owes much to the English Statute of Monopolies of 1624, this was never made directly applicable to the American colonies. During the period of the Confederation after independence, but before the adoption of the Federal Constitution of the United States, most of the states had their own patent laws. However, only that of South Carolina specifically set out a provision granting inventors an exclusive privilege of using their new machines for a defined period (14 years).
The first United States Patent Act, was executed in 1790. It was a short act of seven sections only entitled "An act to promote the Progress of Useful Arts". Between then and July 12, 1836 almost ten thousand patents were issued but these were not numbered.
On July 4, 1836 the Patent Office became a part of the State Department as a result of the enormous dissatisfaction on hearings on patent appeals. 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. The revision removed the nationality and residency requirement to file for a US patent; however, the filing fees continued to vary per race.
On July 13, 1836 the present numbered series was begun, starting with number one.
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 oppostion 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.
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.
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