Stanford University—Austrian Visiting Professorship

Innovation, Jobs, and Patents: A Historical Perspective on US Patent Reform

bridges vol. 30, July 2011 / Feature Article

By W. Bernard Carlson

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As the Obama Administration and the US Congress confront the current economic recession, patent reform has come to be a hot topic.  At first glance, this may seem surprising, since it's easy to assume that patents - the legal means by which inventors secure economic control of their creations - are an esoteric topic that concerns only patent lawyers, R&D managers, and inventors.  However, because patents play an important role in modern economies - stimulating technological creativity and creating jobs - they have long been an important issue debated by political leaders and ordinary citizens.  To understand this, let's have a quick look at the history of patents, which will allow us to put current debates about reforming the US patent system into perspective.

woodcutWoodcut of a furnace from The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio; The Classic Sixteenth-
Century Treatise on Metals and Metallurgy

Patents Have Always Been about Job Creation
The idea of rewarding inventors by giving them monopoly control over their creations dates back to medieval Europe.  The word patent comes from the Latin litterae patentes, meaning an open letter.  These letters were issued by medieval monarchs in order to confer rights and privileges on different individuals, including artisans who had developed new goods or techniques.  Displaying a royal seal, the letters served as proof of those rights, for all to see.

During the Italian Renaissance, as Italian city-states vied for dominance and prestige, they frequently issued patents to artisans to attract them to their cities or to keep creative individuals from leaving.  Italian rulers were well aware that new goods or techniques - such as ways to make silk - stimulated demand and, in turn, created employment and wealth for their cities.  Venice, in particular, was anxious to protect its glass-making industry and regularly issued patents to its glassmakers.

However, as Venetian glassmakers migrated across Europe, they took the idea of patents with them and asked monarchs for monopoly privileges before settling in a particular state.  For instance, one of the earliest recorded patents was granted in 1449 by the English crown to John of Utynam for a glass-making process previously unknown in England.  In return for a monopoly for twenty years, John was required to teach his process to English artisans, thus stimulating the development of the glassmaking industry in England.

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