The origin of patents in the United States is in the Constitution. Patents are not exactly a new idea. You may not realize that the U.S. Constitution mandated a patent system. Prior to the revolution and the ratification of the U.S Constitution in 1787, patent law in the American colonies was handled in an ad-hoc sort of way, with no general laws governing patent rights until the early 1780s when certain states began introducing their own statutes. This all changed with the Constitution and the Patent Act of 1790, which established the basis of patent law which has regulated intellectual property rights in the U.S to this day.
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.
But the origin of patents
actually goes back much further than that, and U.S patent law followed in a
tradition that was already centuries old. The Venetian Patent Statute goes all
the way back to 1474 — the very period during which the capitalist system
itself was emerging from the decline of feudalism. While patent law is always
changing and evolving, the statutes laid out in that document nearly six
centuries ago are today still the basic principles of patent law.
American patent law underwent several modifications following the original Patent Act of 1790. The first was a revision in 1793 to streamline the application process. This was followed by the Patent Act of 1836. Patent law then faced stiff criticism during the Great Depression, which saw the eventual passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act which sought to curtail the power of monopolies.
The Patent Act of 1952 introduced the requirement that patents be ‘non-obvious’, in addition to being novel and useful. This amendment was made to prevent unscrupulous persons from claiming patents over what ought to be considered common knowledge.
The most significant change to U.S patent law in recent times has been the America Invents Act of 2011. Going back to English Statute of Monopolies which informed U.S patent law up until this point, patent rights were awarded to whoever could demonstrate that they were the first one to invent the thing in question.
This seemingly sensible requirement led to certain complications. With the sheer number of patent claims now faced by the USPTO, it became difficult sometimes to establish who had been the first inventor. This led to the prevalence of “interference proceedings”, where inventors would compete in attempting to demonstrate that they had been the first inventor in order to claim patent rights.
With the America Invents Act of 2011, U.S patent law switched from a “first to invent” system to a “first inventor to file” system, thereby eliminating interference proceedings entirely. Under U.S patent law, it no longer matters much who invents a thing first, what matters is which inventor files a patent application first.
You might think of a patent as a contract between you and the
government. The contract gives you a limited monopoly in return for your duty
to fully disclose your invention to the public. This has always been the
fundamental idea behind patents – entice the inventor to disclose the invention
by giving the inventor something in return. Thus, the public eventually
benefits because technology is spread around for all to use. The limited
monopoly begins with the issuance of the patent and lasts for 20 years after
the filing date of the patent.