The historical antecedents of the United States patent system are often traced to seventeenth-century England. Until then, a patent might refer to nothing more than a legally sanctioned monopoly, granted to reward a loyal subject or sold to raise funds for the exchequer. A merchant guild, for example, might purchase a patent for the exclusive right to sell playing cards. Freedom from competition allowed the patent owner to sell in larger volumes and at a higher price. Although this system was undoubtedly popular with the government and with the patent owners, these “odious monopolies” were a source of resentment to consumers and potential competitors. In 1624 the crown relented and the Statute of Monopolies, abolishing the general power of the monarch to grant exclusive rights, became law. Importantly, however, the statute ending the general practice of monopolies specifically exempted patents that allowed inventors the exclusive right to their inventions.
The tradition of granting patents to inventors continued in colonial America and, in spite of some skepticism by influential thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, it was incorporated into the laws of the United States. The framers of the Constitution provided to Congress, in Article I, Section 8, the power to “promote the Progress of Science and “the” useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This brief language is the source of both patent law and copyright law in the United States.1 The specifics were left to Congress, whose
1 When the Constitution was drafted, the term science was used in a broader sense than it is to-
day, and was generally synonymous with knowledge. Arts also held a different meaning, and
the term useful arts probably referred to what we would now call technology. Although some-
what counterintuitive, the prevailing view of legal historians is that patent law exists to ad-
vance the “arts,” whereas copyright law exists to advance “science.”