Patents: For the Benefit of Society

Nasmyth's patent steam hammer, copied by permission of the inventor from the machine in the great exhibition. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-110414]

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-110414]; this is a patent diagram for a steam hammer submitted by James Nasmyth.

You have probably seen a copyright symbol– © –printed inside of your favorite books or on the backs of CDs. But what do you know of the patent? Both copyrights and patents protect the originators of intellectual property–any idea, process or invention that comes from a person’s mind. Patents, however, can be a very complicated and expensive process,. It is, however, a vital part of ongoing innovation and economic development.

Patents themselves date back to the 1400s. In the history of this country, early settlers of the American colonies found themselves subject to the King of England when it came to intellectual property. This meant that any new economic innovation automatically belonged to the English government. Giving persons the right to own their discoveries was so important to the Founding Fathers of the United States that they included it in the U.S. Constitution (Article One, section 8, clause 8). George Washington even proposed in his first State of the Union address of 1790 that incentives should be given to those from other countries to have their inventions produced in the United States.

July 31 marks the 212th anniversary of the first American-issued patent. To commemorate its significance, btw takes a look back and forward.

A Brief History

Click on the book cover to learn more about McGraw-Hill Education’s coverage of government oversight of the economy in the network title “United States Government.” Photo credit: McGraw-Hill Education

Photo credit: McGraw-Hill Education

The first patent laws were created in 1790. The first person to be granted a patent by the U.S. government was Samuel Hopkins of Vermont. He created a new method of making a chemical called potash, used in making gunpowder, fertilizer, soap and glass. Among the early patents were granted for advances in candle making, printing and distilling, as well as one of the most important of its era, the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. This invention separated the fiber of the plant from the seeds, which had once been a challenging chore. This greatly increased production and revolutionized the textile industry.

In 1836, Congress passed the Patent Act of July 4, 1836, which improved the patent system by implementing a policy of examining the applications prior to issue. The patents were also numbered for the first time (with older ones granted an “x” along with a number to differentiate them from the new ones). Later that year, the Patent Office burned down and the 10,000 patents on file were destroyed. Only 2845 were restored or recreated, the others were canceled. As a result, future applicants were required to submit two copies, one to file and a copy to take home.

(You can learn some more about Patents and Trademarks by visiting the “For Kids” page of the U.S. Patents and Trademarks office, which is a division of the Department of Commerce.)

The Importance of Patents

Beyond the practical (and fair) reasons of providing inventors a way to profit from their creations, patents serve a broader function in our society. In a nutshell, they perpetuate the ongoing advancement of knowledge and technology. Because the process of applying for a patent is so detailed (and require drawings), the idea becomes more easily able to be passed along to a new generation. Depending on the nature of a business, patents can become important company assets.

It is important to know that intellectual property protection is not permanent. Protection of a patent lasts for twenty years and then it becomes “public domain” (anyone may reproduce, adapt or distribute the work without giving credit or paying royalties). This freedom is considered crucial to scholarship, research and innovation because it does not limited to only those who can afford it.

Dig Deeper Do some research on some of the most notable patents of all time. Pick one that interests (or amuses) you and share your answer with others.