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History of Patents

The word patent is derived from the Latin word ‘litterae patentes.’, meaning an open letter. Patents protect innovation and help innovators gain an economic advantage from that innovation, specifically the right to exclude others from making and using that invention. The practice of granting patents dates back to the 12th century where privileges were granted to citizens in Venice for their innovations. The purpose of such privileges was to secure new innovations for domestic use and to limit dependence on imports.

John of Utynam was granted the first recorded patent in 1449 and was awarded a 20-year monopoly for a glass-making process previously unknown in England. The first statutes relating to Patents were issued in the Republic of Venice in 1474. It was ruled the innovative concepts after being put into practice, had to be put across the Republic for obtaining legal protection against potential infringers. This statute established the general principles of Patent Law. The principles postulated that the invention had to be novel and useful to the state. The inventor was conferred exclusive rights and enjoyed privileges for a limited time. The infringers could be brought to account and their devices seized and destroyed if found to infringe on a patent.

The industrial revolution accelerated the system of patents. It was widely adopted by various countries. The United States introduced its first Patent laws in 1790 and France in 1791. The signing of the Paris Convention internationalized the patent system in 1883. Under the Paris Convention, an applicant can file a patent application forhis invention in any of the Paris Convention ember countries within one year of the filing of the first filed patent application.

Before independence, all patents in America were governed by British laws. The first known patent granted in America was for a new method of making salt to Samuel Winslow in 1641. Post independence and before the drafting of patent laws, different states had different patent laws.

The first US Patent Act was passed in 1790 for allowing US citizens to register their patents. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War and the Attorney General were given the rights to grant patents for 14 years for new inventions. The first US Patent was granted on July 31, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for an invention titled “making of pot ash and pearl ash by a new apparatus and process”. This patent was assigned patent number X000001. This patent was signed by President George Washington.

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson amended the Patent Act in 1793, and defined a patent as “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter.” This definition is still in use to this date.

In 1836, a fire gutted the Patent Office. A large number of patents were destroyed. That same year, the patent office also modified their numbering scheme for patents. A new Patent Number 1 was granted on July 13, 1836. The older patent numbers were modified and an ‘X’ was appended to them. Thus, the first U.S. patent became patent number 1X. In 1849, the definition of a patent was further modified to include a clause that required the inventions to be new, useful, and non obvious to persons skilled in the art.

Since its inception in 1790, the United States Patents and Trademark Office (U.S.PTO) has granted almost 8 million patents in diverse fields such as electronics, computers, mechanics, biotechnology, etc. The U.S.PTO receives about 450000 patent applications every year, out of which about 40% are granted. The U.S.PTO employs numerous patent examiners who review patent applications and decide whether or not a patent should be granted for the application. The patent applications are typically filed by registered patent attorneys, also referred to as patent lawyers, or registered patent agents representing inventors who want to apply for a patent for an idea or an invention.

The U.S.PTO has been headed by such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, who was appointed as the first Commissioner of Patents in 1790. The U.S.PTO has continually evolved to keep abreast of technological advancements, offering such services as electronic filing of patents, electronic retrieval of patents, keyword database searches, etc. The U.S.PTO is currently headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.