History and Evolution of Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property may sound like a modern-world invention, but it has actually been around since the development of civilization. Many sources pin the origins of Intellectual Property rights to the year 1421 when the world’s first modern patent was awarded to an Italian inventor. However, according to Former Lord Justice of Appeal Robin Jacob, the history of Intellectual Property law can be traced back to as early as 600 BCE. This article explores the documented string of events that eventually led to our modern understanding of Intellectual Property laws, and elevates the conversation to answer a more pertinent question: So what?

Expert Insight: Many people shy away from studying history in general, believing that it is just tedious memorization of events based on evidence. While partly true that historians are essentially walking historical records, a significant portion of the practice involves many social applications, sociological methods, and anthropological theories.

Recognition, But Not Quite Possession: 600 BCE

The earliest records relating to Intellectual Property dates back to the 6th century BCE, from Sybaris in Ancient Greece. It supposedly granted a yearlong exclusivity for bakers to make their culinary invention. In a manner of speaking, the rise of Intellectual Property originated from the rising of bread.

Granting exclusive rights is a culture our modern society was born into. However, knowing that it has existed for millennia tells us of our valuation of individual talents. Although the ancient Greeks still considered their inventions as gifts from the gods, recognizing the human part of the innovation process proves that we are very similar to our distant ancestors.

Expert Insight: In the absence of written texts from prehistory, we can learn social values through artifacts. For instance, remains of animals bearing early forms of branding indicate that early humans attributed produce quality with the method of growing. This idea of adding a separate value on the maker – and, in extension, on how they care for their animals – starkly emulate the modern trademark and patent virtues.

Backstep Into the Dark Ages

However, the resemblance of our values to ancient views would pause for a long time with the rise of the Roman Empire. Religion came to the fore, and so the individualistic view on creatorship took a backstep and remained there since. At around 480 CE, Emperor Zeno overthrew the whole concept of sole proprietorship on artistic and agricultural produce. The Church gained absolute control over the entire Empire.

Nevertheless, through the centuries, religious influence over society waned as humanism reemerged through ancient texts. This movement, which in many ways is traceable to Aristotelian and Platonic worldviews paved the way for the Enlightenment. During this period of human appreciation, the first genuinely recognizable iteration of Intellectual Property appeared.

Let There Be Light

As we collectively emerged from traditionalism during the Renaissance, our appreciation of scientific and technological developments overtook the prevailing dogma. With the influx of revolutionary models of thinking came radical advancements in the field of engineering.

Expert Insight: There was a more significant premium placed on innovations with industrial applications. This is evidenced by the first patent with legal protection granted in 1421 to an Italian inventor. The 1421 license also closely resembles our current patent protections.

However, equal recognition towards works of art would receive legal protection much later during the European Reformation. While publishing guilds were already present before the Reformation, licensing of the written word was an often lopsided agreement.

In 1623, the Statute of Monopolies emboldened select groups of individuals to control their industry. Thus, publishers owned most of the rights associated with authored works. And with the author assuming the losing position, amendments were placed to arrive at the modern version of written word license: the copyright.

It was the year 1710 when the Statute of Anne empowered writers with renewable 14-year protection for their original works.

Polarizing Intellectual Property

Free thinking gave our society the agency to return ownership of inventions to inventors. But it also opened doors for other schools of thought, and often with cascading ideological implications. For instance, as we learned to value individual talents, we also saw how these talents are made through, and for, society. Whereas previous beliefs invalidate ownership by virtue of religious faith, newer ideologies either:

call to consign the rights to the general public, thereby removing profit from the inventor; or
advocate for private ownership of an invention.
While equally valid in their own right, these polarized approaches to Intellectual Property are to become the pillars of modern debates. The latter eventually evolved into legislation, while the former defined alternative social ideation.

From History to Current Reality

During the early 1800s, the idea of global protection of Intellectual Property rights floated among legislative bodies. And it was in the year 1883 that the Paris Convention brought clarity and cooperation among international jurisdictions. Three years later, the 1886 Berne Convention extended the same protection to written expressions. Within half a decade, trademarks were also granted international protection through the Madrid Protocol.

Resulting offices from the conventions later merged into a central governing body, the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property. This then became a United Nation office we now know as the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The transformation of Intellectual Property from Divine providence to valuable human talent took complicated detours and pitstops. However, the history of Intellectual Property reveals an imprint of how we evolved as a society. It tells us of our past values, of our collective thought, and of our remarkable capacity to strike a balance among individuality, society, and spirituality.

Although the roads we passed were pockmarked with glaring mistakes and surrounded by dark alleys, the fact that we do recognize the imperfections and reinvented today’s Intellectual Property tells another thing about us: we can change.

From History to Herstory

And we do change. As we diverge from misinformed beliefs we inherited from our old world, our growth accelerates on all fronts. Modern philosophies enable us to see past the borders and beyond colors. The movement is to take down the great walls dividing us as a society.

Being a bastion for innovation, the Intellectual Property industry also aims to bridge the gaps between sectors of society. World Intellectual Property Day in 2018 addressed the disparity between men and women in the field. This led to world organizations consolidating empowerment efforts for women in the field of innovation and development. Within a few years, the involvement of women increased by over 53%.

After all, the law protects equally. Hence, this move toward equality. Learning the history of Intellectual Property law highlights the value we place on innovations. And this value can be transformed into economic value.