The modern patent system has roots back to 500 BCE in ancient Greece, where inventors could be granted a one year monopoly to the profits of their discoveries. In England, the patent system grew out of ‘letters patent’ issued by the monarch. However, monarchs began abusing this system to gain wealth for the Crown, prompting the enactment of a statute in 1624 that curtailed the monarch’s power over patents and decreased the barriers to acquisition. This statute formed the legal underpinnings that supported the unprecedented technological leaps of the Industrial Revolution.


The legal protection offered by our current patent system is still fueling discovery today. Patents encourage capital-backing for entrepreneurs by providing some stability and security to investors. However, this system gives consumer markets a lot of power in dictating the focus of innovative efforts. Adjustments to our patent systems could help encourage investigation into problems affecting disadvantaged populations or areas with high social benefit.

LENGTH OF PATENT PROTECTION: While some countries have utility models, a kind of small scale patent available for protecting rights to innovations of smaller scope, the US and Canada do not. Instead, our patent system offers a one-size-fits-all length of protection. This inadvertently encourages companies to invest in inventions with lower research and development (R&D) demands, allowing the product to reach the market earlier in the protectionary period. In the field of drug development, this could lead companies to reduce R&D costs by investing in small modifications to existing drugs, and veering away from developing new classes of drugs. Despite the greater social impact that a newly discovered drug would have for the public, the R&D required would eat through much of the protectionary period, and could leave little time to recoup costs.

OFFERING PRIZES: Prizes or governmental patent buy-outs have been proposed to incentivize research efforts in fields not being rewarded under our current patent system. Bounties would be put out on diseases affecting poorer populations or on the development of clean energy strategies. This would allow products to immediately be sold at off-patent prices, with prizes given to inventors to augment revenues. However evaluating the value of the invention would be a significant challenge, since their impact or efficacy is not always apparent at the time of discovery.

pocket-watch-1637396_1920In 1714, the British government offered a £10,000 to £20,000 prize for a method to accurately determine longitude. John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, set about solving this problem by developing a clock that could maintain an accurate time throughout the movement, humidity, and temperature fluctuations of a journey at sea – not a trivial problem when clocks of the day relied on pendulums. In 1761, Harrison submitted the fourth iteration of his marine chronometer, which performed well on the test voyage, for the prize. However, the board assessing his invention were unconvinced that the demonstrated accuracy wasn’t just luck, and neither he nor anyone else ever received the official prize. Components of his invention are still widely used today, even though their importance wasn’t appreciated at the time.

PATENT BUY-OUTS: Patent buy-outs, if funded by a body committed to the betterment of the global community, could also encourage development in sectors with rich social value. This action is not without precedent. In January 1839, Louis Daguerre presented a shorter, simpler photographic process developed with co-inventor Joseph-Necephore Niépce. Recognizing the value of this invention to the world, the French Government bought the rights from Daguerre and released the information as a gift to the world. Daguerre, however, was less altruistic in nature. In the time it took to prepare the paperwork to transfer the rights to the French government, Daguerre filed paperwork of his own to secure an English patent. The photographic technique was now available to everyone for free – except the British.

Patents are valuable because we have set up a system where they are the only option. Arguments about their benefits often fail to acknowledge that they don’t serve all areas equally, and tweaking the system to include other methods for rewarding inventors could help support innovation in fields lacking a rich consumer market.

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Heather MacGregor

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