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Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks—A Look Back

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This chapter provides a history of trademarks, patents, and copyright law with an eye toward informing inventors of the various issues involved in obtaining patents for their inventions.
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Patents, trademarks, and copyrights have an extensive history dating as far back as 5,000 years ago when the Neolithic man marked cave walls to show that he owned the cave. These marks are the predecessor to today's trademarks. Inventors, authors, and others who develop ideas and inventions that have potential commercial value petitioned lawmakers over time to enact regulations that classified their ideas and inventions as assets. Those regulations are known as patents, trademarks, and copyrights.

The differences among patents, copyrights, and trademarks can be confusing. A patent grants an inventor sole rights to a new idea, new method, or new process. A copyright grants authors, musicians, and artists the exclusive rights to publish and sell literary, musical, or artistic works. Copyrights cover artistic, dramatic, musical, literary, and other scholarly works—both published and unpublished. A trademark is a word, phrase, slogan, design, or symbol that is used to identify merchandise and is used to distinguish merchandise from competing products. Trademarks indicate the source of a product (i.e., brand names).

A trademark was the first way a tradesman identified his goods and services. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and the Chinese used these markings to identify the maker of a product so that a buyer would know the workmanship of the goods or services that he or she was buying.

One of the first trademark laws was The Bakers Marking Law passed in England in 1266 under the reign of King Henry III. The Bakers Marking Law required bread makers to mark their work with either pinpricks or stamps. Nearly a century later in 1363, silversmiths were required to mark their products as well. Soon after, bottle makers and porcelain manufacturers were also obligated to mark their products.

Nearly four centuries after The Bankers Marking Law was enacted, one of the first cases of a trademark infringement appeared before the courts in England. A trademark infringement is an action of another that violates the trademark of a trademark holder. In the 1618 case, a company that made a lower-quality cloth tried to pass their product off as their higher-quality competitor's in the marketplace through the use of their markings.

The History of Inventions

An invention has three distinct characteristics. These are

  1. Problem. Every invention (including patents) has to solve a specific problem.

  2. Solution. An invention must solve a specific problem using an idea that those skilled in the art have not yet considered, which is subjective and the basis for many legal challenges to an invention.

  3. Novelty. The solution to the specific problem must be novel.

The first patents were granted during the Renaissance period in Italy. Venice granted ten-year patents on silk making devices as far back as the 1200s.

Britain has the oldest formal patent system. During the fifteenth century, the government granted patents to specific persons or groups. The earliest known English patent was given to Flemish-born John of Utynam in 1449 for a method of making stained glass that had not previously been used in England. To receive a patent was to receive a favor from the ruling monarch. In exchange for Utynam's patent, he was to teach craftsmen in England his method. The practice of teaching others and passing on information continues today as part of the patent process (see Chapter 4, "Invention Teams").

A patent in the fifteenth century was different than a patent today. The word "patent" originally came from the Latin "litterae patentes," meaning open letter. Patents during the Middle Ages were literally letters stamped with the king's seal of approval. They were left open so that anyone could come and read them and see or challenge their validity. This was the state of Utynam's patent. The state of being of a simple, literal letter has changed drastically since that time, but the meaning also has changed.

During the fifteenth century, receiving a patent also meant that the person received royal consent for a monopoly on that product. (A monopoly is when a group has exclusive control over certain manufactured goods or services.) This was a problem because merchants were granted patents for common products that were already in existence such as soap, glass, iron, and paper.

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