Intrinsic Right: The Foundations of the American Patent Law

It was on April 1790 that patents had officially been put into law in the United States, with then-president George Washington signing the bill which laid the foundations of modern intellectual property laws. For the first time in history, the fundamental right of an inventor to profit from his or her own invention had been cemented into law. Income privileges from inventions or innovations once depended entirely on the prerogative of a monarch or a special act of a legislature.

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A person named Samuel Hopkins from Pittsford, Vermont, was the first inventor to be granted a patent, having presented a new apparatus that would improve the production of potash. Thomas Jefferson, himself an inventor, served as the reviewer of the patent. The document also underwent the review of the Secretary of War before obtaining signatures from the Attorney General and, finally, from President Washington. For a small amount, American inventors were given the opportunity to seek patent protection for their inventions, thanks to the provisions of the Act of 1790.

In 1791, while sorting through a dossier of designs, Jefferson realized that the process of reviewing patent applications at the time was way too tedious for busy Cabinet members. The volume of application was beyond what was expected and overwhelmed Jefferson. This led to the reassignment of the patent examining duties to a State Department clerk, until the Patent Office was formed in 1802.

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Patents were originally issued by name and date, but that was later changed to numbers upon the proclamation of the Patent Act of July 4, 1836. Today, there are no less than five million patents that have been issued to Americans and other nationals by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Irah Donner specializes in the counselling, acquisition, and enforcement of all forms of intellectual property rights. For more about his professional background, follow this link.