Patents protect the invention of things but not works of art or trademarks, which have their own body of law. They give a limited monopoly for an inventor to produce or license their invention for a set amount of time. Throughout history, patent law has inspired and rewarded innovation but also stifled innovation when abused.
The first patents were issued in Vienna, which was its own state, in 1450 and protected various glassmaking techniques. Those patents lasted ten years. Viennese spread out and asked for similar protections for all manner of inventions.
Early patents, beyond the Viennese glass blowers, were a mess. They more often gave a state-sponsored monopoly based on patronage or family ties than merit. At one point, the British government issued a patent for salt.
Genuine inventors protested vigorously and, about 1624, King George I created the first modern patent laws. Patents issued to whoever presented a working invention, regardless of family background. The “Statute of Monopolies” explicitly endorsed patent protections. It also voided the prior bogus patents.
Patent wars predictably ensued that continue to this day. Thanks to the business and political genius of his new partner, Matthew Boulton, Watt used the new laws to patent and protect his condensing steam engine. He was the first to actively protect and litigate his patents. Chief engineer William Murdoch was originally hired to inspect suspected patent infringers but eventually became a key inventor in his own right.
After the revolution, the US adopted patent in the Constitution. However, patents were issued by the Secretary of State and the first person to hold that position, Thomas Jefferson was unenthusiastic.
Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, repeatedly asked for a patent. Jefferson ignored him despite that Jefferson’s own farm utilized the machine. Eventually, Jefferson realized his purposeful delays caused economic harm and brought the idea of standardized parts to Whitney.
Steamboat inventor John Fitch also asked for a patent and Jefferson stalled. By the time he issued a patent, to Fitch and three others, the protections were worthless. Fitch has a Fresca in the US Capitol celebrating his invention and nothing else.
Over time, patents have been abused. Fake inventors, political issues, or even outright thieves worked the patent system the same way a pickpocket works a crowded subway.
The system did little to protect genuine inventors or foster innovation. Patent trolls, “non-practicing entities” who patented every idea they could think of, proliferated. The US system became especially bad after the Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) defined an original invention as one not submitted to the PTO, regardless of how widespread it was in use. A revolving door where patent examiners become patent lawyers, prosecuting or defending the frivolous patents, made the situation worse.
As it has for centuries the patent wars continue, with genuine innovators battling copycats and intellectual property thieves. For the most part, the thieves usually win. However, with growing disgust at the system, there is eventual hope for change.