The debate about who wrote the first patent, understood as protecting the intellectual property of an innovation, is long-lived and ongoing. In short, the debate is between those who believe that the basis of the first patent must necessarily be legal and those who, on the other hand, maintain that its birth coincides with the first theoretical (although rudimentary) foundations of protecting an invention.
5TH CENTURY BC
Located in present-day Calabria, in the 5th century BC Sybaris was one of the most important cities on the Ionian Sea of Magna Graecia.
Based on the archaeological finds available to date, this is where the right to exclusively exploit an invention was born. More specifically, it was a particular culinary recipe. The archaeological find in question is an inscription dating back to the 5th century BC, which reads; “An encouragement is offered to all those who make any improvement to well-being, the relative earnings being insured to the inventor for one year”. Source: UIBM.
And again, in texts attributed to the Athenian historian Phylarchus: “ The Sybarites established by law that if a cook or assistant had invented an original and elaborate recipe, no one other than the inventor could profit from it before the end of a year and that during this period he alone had the exclusive right of reproduction, so that others, also engaged in work, would excel with similar inventions”.
The next stop of our journey exploring the history of the first patent takes us to Florence, during the construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. In order to accelerate its construction and lower the transport costs of the marble blocks from Carrara to Florence, Brunelleschi created the Badalone, a barge for the river transport of heavy objects powered by wind energy. The Florentine genius received a patent for the duration of three years for the production and use of his idea.
1331 – 1449, ENGLAND
The first English act aimed at protecting an innovation is dated 1331. This motion allowed John Kempe and his company to have a production monopoly over textile materials in England.
Meanwhile, we must jump to 1449 for the first patent which can be understood with the current conception. In that year, King Henry IV of England granted a 20-year license to John of Utynam for the production of stained glass.
In 1474, the Senate of the Venetian Republic issued the first patent legislation (Patent Statute) to protect the innovations and technologies that reached its ports, within its borders, from all over the world.
“Therefore, decision will be passed that, by authority of this Council, each person who will make in this city any new ingenious contrivance, not made heretofore in our dominion, as soon as it is reduced to perfection, so that it can be used and exercised, shall give notice of the same to the office of our Provisioners of Common. It being forbidden to any other in any territory and place of ours to make any other contrivance in the form and resemblance thereof, without the consent and license of the author up to ten years.” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venetian_Patent_Statute).
Lastly, laws for the protection of intellectual property were also enacted in England. The Statute of Monopolies was published in 1624. King James I of England granted patents for new inventions for a period of 14 years. The protection prohibited the distribution and import of a given product, monopolising trade in favour of the inventor.
In summary, without taking sides, it is clear that the idea of protecting human inventiveness from others’ misappropriation has accompanied man over the centuries. If human ingenuity is as old as the world, so is the need to protect its intellectual property.
English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider