Head back in time with our latest article to discover the history of patents

Ancient Greece

Not much is known about the origin of patents, but the first mention of a concept resembling patent law was by Athenaeus of Naucratis in the late second to early third century A.D.[1]  Athenaeus, an ancient Greek scholar who wrote about Greek cultures, considered ancient to his own, noted that when the city of Sybaris (ca. sixth century B.C.) held a feast, the city enacted specific laws pertaining to the celebrations.[2]  Roughly translated, one of the laws stated in regards to chefs who provided food for the celebrations, “When one of the chefs invented his own delicious dish, no other person should be allowed to make use of this invention before the end of a year, only the inventor himself; during which time he would have the business profit from it, so that others would compete and surpass each other in such inventions.”[3]  This law has elements similar to modern day patent law—it allows for an inventor to have exclusive rights to use or produce their invention for a period, by disallowing any other from using that same invention, so that the inventor could profit from it.

Renaissance Italy: The First Patents      

The first known patent was issued in 1416 from the Great Council of Venice to Ser Franciscus Petri for a term of 50 years.[4]  Petri, a citizen of Rhodes and a foreigner, developed a device that turned wool into felt, and his patent was the first known to feature a “right to exclude.”[5]  Five years later, in 1421, the city-state of Florence granted a patent to engineer and architect,  Filippo Brunelleschi, who is known for designing Florence’s Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore and many other world’s architectural wonders.[6]  The patent granted Brunelleschi a three year exclusive right to manufacture and use the design for his ship, Il Bandalone in Florence’s waters.[7]  In the Il Bandalone patent, Brunelleschi wrote, “Filippo Brunelleschi […] has invented some machine or kind of ship, […] for less money than usual, and with several other benefits to merchants and others, and that he refuses to make such machine available to the public, in order that the fruit of his genius and skill may not be reaped by another without his will and consent.”[8]  The key ruling body of Florence recognized the importance of granting patent rights so that an inventor would “open up what he is hiding and would disclose it to all.”[9]

Venice: The First Patent System

The contribution of the Italian Renaissance to the patent world was not just the development of individual patent rights.  In 1471, the Venetian senate passed the first patent statute, the basis of what would become the first statute-based patent system in Europe.  Today, scholars have credited the Venetian patent system for modern patent law.  Every feature that modern policymakers find fundamental to patent law can be found in the Venetian patent system. One prominent patent historian has even gone so far as to say that, “The international patent experience of nearly 500 years has merely brought amendments or improvements upon the solid core established in Renaissance Venice.”[10]  At the time, Venetian glassmakers were renowned for their glassmaking, and the art was a kept tightly secret.  The Venetian government strictly monitored and controlled the activities of glassmaking masters so that the secrets of glassmaking would not be revealed to the rest of the world.[11]  When the glassmaking masters began to flee Venice, other European markets became coveted destinations for them, and the grant of patents facilitated the transfer of the glassmaking knowledge to these new locations. [12]

The First English Patent and Patent System

While the Venice patent system is the oldest known, it is the English system that is the oldest continuously operating.[13]  In 1449, Henry VI of England granted the first Letters Patent to a Flemish stained glass maker named John of Utynam.[14]  The Letters Patent granted John a 20 year monopoly on stained glass production.[15] Henry VI and his successors continued to grant Letters Patent to individuals, though they used the system as a means to grant monopolies to royal favorites and to increase the coffers of the Crown.   The power of granting monopolies became abused and the Courts began to limit situations in which a monopoly could be granted.[16]  In 1610, after public pressure, James I subsequently revoked all patents, with the exception of “projects of new inventions.”[17] This concept of granting patents to new inventions, rather than individuals who curried favor by the monarch was incorporated in England’s first patent law, the Statute of Monopolies, in 1624.[18]  In the statute, Parliament limited monopolies to 14 years or less, and only granted them to actual inventors. For the two centuries following the enactment of the Statute of Monopolies, the patent system was shaped by the courts, not legislators. [19] Eventually, patentees were required to provide a written description of an invention and the manner in which the invention was to be used in order for a patent to be granted, and the requirement for a patent specification was introduced.

Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 and Subsequent Acts

By the mid-1800’s, it took several visits to different offices, paying a number of fees,  and obtaining the King’s signature twice, in order to obtain a patent.[20]  In an effort to keep up with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, and the desire to streamline the patenting process, Parliament passed the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, which established a centralized Patent Office that serviced all countries within the U.K., and provided for a simplified procedure for obtaining a patent, such as requiring a description of the invention to be filed, and publishing the application.[21]  The Patents, Designs, and Trade Marks Act of 1883 established both the office of the Comptroller General of Patents, and a staff of patent examiners whose duty was to examine patent applications for accuracy in the written description of an application.  The Patents Act of 1902 introduced an investigation into the novelty of all UK specifications published within 50 years of a filed application date, before granting of a patent.[22]

Current Legislation: The Patents Act of 1977

The current patent legislation is the Patents Act of 1977, which was designed to patent modern technology like computers and pharmaceuticals.[23]  It sets out the requirements for patent applications, how the patent-granting process should operate, and the law relating to disputes concerning patents.[24] It also sets out how UK law relates to the European Patent Convention and the Patent Co-operation Treaty.[25] In the 1980s, international collaborative entities such as the European Patent Office (EPO) and the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) allowed for the simultaneous filing of a patent applications in several countries from a single application.

[1] Michael Witty, Athenaeus describes the most ancient intellectual property, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1080/08109028.2018.1443619

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Stefania Fusco, Murano Glass Vase, file:///Users/momobear/3L%20Year/Spring%202021/Externship/SSRN-id3373879.pdf

[5] Id.

[6] Matteo Sabbattini, Filippo Brunelleschi, the Medici, the Silicon Valley and Intellectual Property

[7] Id.

[8] The First Patents, https://dollyoko.thing.net/rough/text/patents01.htm

[9] Damian A. Durrant, Venice and the Origins of Patent Protection

[10] Bruce Bugbee, Early American Law of Intellectual Property (1960).

[11] Stefania Fusco, Murano Glass Vase, file:///Users/momobear/3L%20Year/Spring%202021/Externship/SSRN-id3373879.pdf

[12] Id.

[13] The First English Patent for an Invention, https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=2524

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.



[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Patent Act of 1977, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-patents-act-1977#:~:text=The%20Patents%20Act%201977%20sets,the%20Patent%20Co%2Doperation%20Treaty.

[25] Id.