What is a patent?
A patent is an exclusive right to exploit an invention. New, inventive and useful devices, substances, or methods may be granted a patent. The patent owner has the right to enforce their patent rights through the courts. They are also, by law, personal property so can be sold and licensed.
The patent may be owned by the inventor, or another to which the inventor’s patent rights flow, for example the inventor’s employer may be entitled to own the patent.
Monopolies are generally disliked by governments and the law, who favour freedom of competition. However, governments and the law offer a monopoly for inventions because they believe that they promote the introduction of new technologies and consequently economic development.
The general principle of the modern patent goes back to the 1602 case of Dacy v Allen, (1602) 11 Co Rep 84. This case is otherwise known as the Case of Monopolies. A monopoly for the importation of foreign playing cards was granted to Darcy. Darcy sued Thomas Allen following Allen ordering and selling playing cards. The court found the patent void and declared that monopolies generally invalid because they increase prices, reduced quality, and generally restrained trade. However, the court found that one type of monopoly was justified:
“where any man… by his own… industry or… invention doth bring any new trade into the realm, or any engine tending to the furtherance of a trade that never was used before — and that for the good of the realm —… the King may grant him a monopoly patent for some reasonable time until the subjects may learn the same in consideration of the good he does bring by his invention to the Commonwealth. Otherwise not.”
This principle later became part of the 1624 statute of monopolies which declared all monopolies invalid with an exception for inventions, which were described as the “sole working or making of any manner of new manufacture”, to be awarded to “the first true inventor”.
To this day we have the principle of the award of a patent for a limited time, generally 20 years, in return for a detailed description of the invention in the patent specification that forms part of the patent application. The detailed description includes information on how to realise it so that when the patent lapses anyone is able to learn the invention through the detailed description and freely work it.