Samuel Hopkins first patent sign imageBy now, you've certainly heard the terms 'intellectual property' and 'IP' bandied about. We live in a time of creative wonder, where anyone with a great idea and access to technology has the potential to disrupt the market. In such a world intellectual property carries more weight than its tangible counterparts. But does everyone understand how the concept and terms originated? Do you? There is a long and fascinating history behind the copyrighting of human creations. Here are a few things you might not already know about IP law.

Legal protection of intellectual property is nothing new. Of course, the earliest laws designed to protect creations of the human mind did not exactly refer to intellectual property. Nor were the original reasons to protect intellectual property the same as they are today.


Back in medieval Europe, associations such as guilds were given exclusive rights to manage and regulate their particular industry. But rather than promote creativity, this absolute power vested in a few, stifled it and created a monopoly. Furthermore intellectual property protection was used as more of a ruse to protect the political agenda of the state. For example the Stationary Company’s monopoly established in 1556 in England limited the ability to publish anything with the government and church, presenting a one-sided account of affairs and history.  


Thankfully, things took a turn for the better in England in 1623 when the Statute of Monopolies was passed. This Act not only prevented the creation of monopolies but granted actual inventors a period of 14 years of exclusive control over their inventions.


Intellectual property rights were further strengthened in 1710 with the passage of the British Statute of Anne, but its scope was limited to preventing books from being copied. It was a start in the right direction, but provided nowhere near the IP protection that is currently available. These days, intellectual property protection for startup companies and individuals may be granted to creators of sound recordings, photographs, computer programs, and a host of other things that were not even imagined in 18th century England.

1800's and after

The term intellectual property was first adopted by the North German Confederation in their constitution in 1867 and was embraced years later in 1893 when the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property used it in its name. This organization was the predecessor of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is when the term gained prominence in the United States. The WIPO was established in 1967 as a specialized agency of the United Nations. More than 180 member nations including the USA belong to the WIPO.

Although the United States Patent Office had been created under the Patent Act of 1836, the term entered common American vernacular with the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. But even before a formal patent office existed, patents were still granted through various acts of governance. The first patent in America was issued in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for a process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer. The patent was signed by President George Washington. Even though the constitution of the United States had a provision to protect intellectual property, the term itself was never used. Article I, Section 8 reads: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. 

Do you need IP protection?

If you run a startup, it is highly likely that you have intellectual property that merits copyright protection, whether you realize it or not. If you or someone who works for you has created something absolutely unique, contact us and ask to speak with an Customer Engagement Specialist without delay.

If you have come up with a truly original idea, you should start planning for its protection right away.

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