If you are an inventor, today’s word is one of the main forces defining why you invent products. However, if you are someone buying this product, it is one of the reasons why you complain about having to pay so much for it. On the other hand, if someone with “deep pockets” attempts to steal and/or misrepresent a product, this is why you are happy you are a patent lawyer. Overall, patents are an important driver of innovation in society, and though we likely come in contact with thousands of patented items daily, we rarely think about the word or what it means.
Our word patent is a shortened form of the Anglo-French lettre patent, meaning, simply, ‘open letter, ‘ coming from the Old French patente, a variation of the Medieval Latin patens, meaning ‘open or accessible.’
While the link between openness and our modern definition of a patent as meaning ‘exclusive rights’ may be rather weak, think in abstract legal terms of what a patent is: it is an exchange of the open knowledge of an invention in return for the exclusive rights for an invention for a set amount of time.
The first known use of our word comes from the late 1300s, in Chaucer’s Middle-English The Canterbury Tales, where, in the Prologue, he writes of a sergeant of the law: “Often he sat as justice in assize, By patent or commission from the crown”, using the former common definition of the word as being an authorisation of rights or privileges.
It would be a further 2 centuries until the word would attain the usage with which we have become familiar: circa 1588, George Longe’s writing to Lord Burghley, the chief minister of Queen Elizabeth I, recorded in Henry Ellis’ Original Letters, Illustrative of English History (1827), where he desires the patent rights to establish a glasshouse in Ireland, explaining how the patent came first to England: “Dollyne and Carye obtained the Patent for making of Glass in England in September the 9th year [1566–7] of the Queen’s Majesty’s reign”. (The patent expired, driving Dollyne and Carye to lease out all the benefits to French glass producers.)
So, are patents inherently good or bad?
Well, it depends. On one hand, those in favour argue that the security and financial gain of owning a patent is a key driven in producing new and innovative products that can make life easier. Conversely, advocates against some aspects of patents argue that, by creating limits on actually using information and innovation or making the price of accessibility to information unnecessarily high, patents weaken the public domain and stifle innovation and creativity. Good or bad, one universal truth is that, with U.S. patent applications doubling since the year 2000 (from approx. 296K to 590K in 2015) and patent litigation costing approximately $60 billion in wealth annually, patents have become big business.