Patents are one of our most important legal concepts — at least from the perspective of invention ideas and intellectual property. Without patenting your invention, you’d have no way of controlling its use and your role in its evolution, which is why we grant worthy inventors a monopoly on using their ideas.
However, the patent system that’s widely in use today is older than you might know. States and similar entities have been giving out intellectual monopolies since the days of Ancient Greece. With that in mind, we’ll look at some of the most critical milestones in the development of modern patents.
We can’t know which ancient states gave out the first patent-like monopolies for sure — there’s no surviving record of most similar legal documents and decrees. However, we know that Ancient Greek states gave out similar allowances to the creators of new dishes, for example, around 500 BC.
Still, most historians agree that the first patent roughly equivalent to the word’s modern meaning was given out in the late 15th century AD. A Venetian legal body decreed the first Patent Statute in 1474 AD. According to experts in intellectual property law, that’s the first reliable evidence of patents as an intellectual property concept — it declared the importance of preserving and defining an inventor’s rights to the exploitation of their ideas.
Fast-forward to 17th-century Britain, and we see that England’s royal court routinely grants a wide range of monopolies — over the trafficking of goods, the use of specific manufacturing techniques, and among other things, inventions.
Once the Crown’s power was curtailed and the Statute of Monopolies was declared, the granting of patents was limited to truly novel inventions. This approach was adopted to preserve innovation while encouraging the dissemination of ideas and technology across the Anglo-Saxon world.
It’s hard to point at one era of human innovation and mark it as more important and fruitful than all the others. However, if we were to make such a list, the age of the Industrial Revolution would surely be among the top contenders.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the vast technological strides made by European nations led to much closer regional and, subsequently, global collaboration. This created the need for an international agreement on intellectual property laws and patent protection — culminating in the 1883 Paris Convention.
According to this agreement, all the participating countries adopted nominally agreed on basic patent system principles to provide global protection to innovative ideas and individuals.
The abovementioned Paris Convention set some basic principles for patent law — like patentability requirements, protection terms, and conflict resolution mechanisms. Still, the patent procedures in individual countries remained significantly different for the foreseeable future.
The next paradigm shift in the world of innovation came almost a century later, with the signing of the Patent Cooperation Treaty in 1970. The PCT finally harmonized the different patent systems in developed countries, and other national systems would soon follow suit.
The examination and filing of patent applications became a uniform process across a large chunk of the world — making it easy for inventors to simultaneously protect their ideas and inventions in many different countries with just one patent application.
Of course, the Paris Convention and the PCT wouldn’t represent the end of the global evolution of patents. The EPC — European Patent Convention — would be signed just a few years later, in 1973. While important, it was still more of an evolution than a revolution; the EPC deepened some solutions of the previous treaties and further harmonized national systems. Also, many smaller subsequent treaties with different countries and blocs spread this ecosystem of intellectual property across the world.
Trademarks and Patents
Many people confuse patents and trademarks, often believing they’re the same thing.
In reality, trademarks aren’t patents — instead, they’re a seal that confirms a good’s authenticity. They protect marks like logos, images, and phrases that we use to differentiate between various types of products.
So, a good can be protected by both a patent and a trademark. A patent protects others from profiting off your invention by selling it under another name, while a trademark stops people from using similar designs, logos, and marks.
You can trademark symbols, phrases, designs, or a combo of all of them — as long as they’re used to distinguish services and products from one another. That’s why your mark needs to be unique; if it sounds, means, or looks like another trademark, you can’t create a trademark of your own.
There’s another way trademarks and patents are different — you rarely apply for a trademark immediately after creating a product or a service. In practice, it takes time to build up your brand recognition. And that’s critical for trademarking, since your name, design, or logo needs to be different and recognizable enough to warrant a trademark in the first place.