Have Patents Passed Their Peak?

Article excerpt

In the 1970s UK patents, seen as an indication of the health of a country's research establishment, were at their peak. But, finds Rhymer Rigby, their levels have been falling for the past two decades

The citizens of Sybaris in ancient Greece - the very same who gave us the modern word for lovers of luxury - were using a system of patents some 500 years before the birth of Christ. These, gave a monopoly on certain types of cookers and typically lasted one year.

In the UK, al, elsewhere, the history of patents begins somewhat later. Though various forms of state patronage and protection existed during the early Middle Ages, it is generally agreed that the first English patent was granted in 1449. This went to a Fleming, John of Utyman, and covered the manufacture of a type of stained glass (used in the windows of Eton College). The precedent set, patents continued to be granted in a rather haphazard and partisan manner over the next 150 years.

On his succession in 1603, James I revoked all previous patents and introduced anew system, which, 14 years later, produced the first truly modem patent@ No 1 of 1617. Despite his sweeping reforms, however, widespread abuse continued - to such an extent that in 1624 Parliament instituted the Statute of Monopolies, which protected new inventions for a 14-year period. What these patents actually covered was often quite, ambiguous, as the literacy rate was so low that no written details were required.

The invention of the steam engine in the following century - patented by James Watt in 1705 - was to have a profound effection the whole patents system. By the late 1800s, the steam engine had become so ubiquitous that for the first time Parliament allowed patents for inventions that were improvements on existing ideas, rather than original ideas themselves. Obtaining a patent, however, was still a costly and bureacratic business. An 18th-century inventor would have to visit seven different offices, obtain the monarch's signature twice and, for a patent covering England, Scotland and Wales, stump up 300 [pounds] - equivalent to over 7,000 [pounds] in today's money.

The Patent Law Amendments Act of 1852 simplified matters considerably and reduced the fee to 25 [pounds]; the number of annual applications consequently increased from 400 to 2,000. …