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A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state to a patentee (the inventor or assignee) for a fixed period of time in exchange for the regulated, public disclosure of certain details of a device, method, process or composition of matter (substance) (known as an invention) which is new, inventive, and useful or industrially applicable.


  • We can try to understand the nature of these inventions by looking at who was granted patents. The patent system, which protects property rights in ideas, was systematized in the Statute of Monopolies legislated by the English Parliament in 1623, partially as an attempt to stop the king from arbitrarily granting “letters patent” to whomever he wanted—effectively granting exclusive rights to undertake certain activities or businesses. The striking thing about the evidence on patenting in the United States is that people who were granted patents came from all sorts of backgrounds and all walks of life, not just the rich and the elite. Many made fortunes based on their patents. Take Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonogram and the lightbulb and the founder of General Electric, still one of the world’s largest companies. Edison was the last of seven children. His father, Samuel Edison, followed many occupations, from splitting shingles for roofs to tailoring to keeping a tavern. Thomas had little formal schooling but was homeschooled by his mother.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Poverty, and Prosperity (2012), p. 44
  • Between 1820 and 1845, only 19 percent of patentees in the United States had parents who were professionals or were from recognizable major landowning families. During the same period, 40 percent of those who took out patents had only primary schooling or less, just like Edison. Moreover, they often exploited their patent by starting a firm, again like Edison. Just as the United States in the nineteenth century was more democratic politically than almost any other nation in the world at the time, it was also more democratic than others when it came to innovation. This was critical to its path to becoming the most economically innovative nation in the world
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Poverty, and Prosperity (2012), pp. 44-45
  • As more and more good ideas come under the protection of patents, it may become increasingly unlikely that any one program can incorporate the state of the art in user-interface design without sinking into a quagmire of unending royalty payments and legal battles.
    • Borenstein, Nathaniel S. (1991). Programming as if people mattered : friendly programs, software engineering, and other noble delusions (4. print. ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 52. ISBN 9780691087528. 
  • Software patents may be used as a form of outright coercion, providing protection against theft of ideas as a potentially high cost to future inventors.
    • Borenstein, Nathaniel S. (1991). Programming as if people mattered : friendly programs, software engineering, and other noble delusions (4. print. ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 53. ISBN 9780691087528. 
  • The days are over when technology can be advanced in laboratories by individual scientists alone. Now you need an army of lawyers to negotiate the hazardous terrain of interlocking patents. Unless we find a solution to the problem of interlocking patents, the patent system may actually impede the very innovation it was designed to encourage.
    • Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2008), Ch. 6, p. 128
  • The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.
    • Henry L. Ellsworth, commissioner of the Patent Office, 1843 report to Congress (note that the context is the increasing workload at the patent office) cited in Samuel Sass (1989) "A Patently False Patent Myth," in: Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 13, Spring 1989, pg. 310-313
  • If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.
    • Bill Gates, Challenges and Strategy Memo. 16 May 1991
  • In the field of industrial patents in particular we shall have seriously to examine whether the award of a monopoly privilege is really the most appropriate and effective form of reward for the kind of risk bearing which investment in scientific research involves.
  • If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
  • Before then [the adoption of the United States Constitution], any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.
    • Abraham Lincoln, Second lecture on discoveries and inventions, February 11, 1859 [2] (from page 356b) [3].
  • If one does not know whether a system “as a whole” (in contrast to certain features of it) is good or bad, the safest “policy conclusion” is to “muddle through” – either with it, if one has long lived with it, or without it, if one has lived without it... If we did not have a patent system, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge of its economic consequences, to recommend instituting one. But since we have had a patent system for a long time, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge, to recommend abolishing it. This last statement refers to a country such as the United States of America – not to a small country and not a predominantly nonindustrial country, where a different weight of argument might well suggest another conclusion...
    • Fritz Machlup, An Economic Review of the Patent System (U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights, Study No. 15), pp.79-80 (1958).
  • Patents are the best and most effective means of controlling competition. They occasionally give absolute command of the market, enabling their owner to name the price without regard to the cost of production... Patents are the only legal form of absolute monopoly.
  • There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?
    • Jonas Salk, in response to the question regarding his Polio vaccine, "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?" by Edward R. Murrow, in a CBS Television interview, on See It Now (12 April 1955); quoted in Shots in the Dark : The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine (2001) by Jon Cohen
  • The good patent gives the world something it did not truly have before, whereas the bad patent has the effect of trying to take away from the world something which it effectively already had.
    • Giles Sutherland Rich, 1978 60 JPOS 271,288, cited in CIPA Guide to the Patents Act, page 83 and Gaster/Marlow, CRi 1/2009 pages 3-4
  • A country without a patent office and good patent laws is just a crab and can't travel any way but sideways and backwards.
    • Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
  • Well, then, the moment there is a patent case one can see it before the case is opened, or called in the list. How can we see it? We can see it by a pile of books as high as this invariably... Now, what is the result of all this? Why that a man had better have his patent infringed, or have anything happen to him in this world, short of losing all his family by influenza, than have a dispute about a patent. His patent is swallowed up, and he is ruined. Whose fault is it? It is really not the fault of the law; it is the fault of the mode of conducting the law in a patent case. This is what causes all this mischief.


  • "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
    • Often attributed to comissioner of the U.S. Patent Office Charles H. Duell and dated 1899. Although versions of this quote/legend (sometimes with names, dates, and other details changed) are widely circulated, they appear to be a distorted expansion of the Ellsworth quote above, taken out of context. See also: Samuel Sass (1989) "A Patently False Patent Myth," in: Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 13, Spring 1989, pg. 310-313

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