Mises Wire

Home | Wire | Let's Bring Back the Good Old Days of English Patents

Let's Bring Back the Good Old Days of English Patents

Tags Legal SystemWorld HistoryMonopoly and Competition

It's somewhat striking that modern libertarian advocates of patent rights seem blithely unaware of the utterly monopolistic, completely unlibertarian origin of "patent grants" by English monarchs. At the very least, they ought to be a bit uncomfortable that patents arose in this manner.

[Note: Update: Patent-Seeking as a Defensive Move — Then, and Now]

Interestingly, as reported by the Patently-O Patent Law Blog (The Roots of Patent Policy: Rethinking Early English Patent Policy),

Dr. Chris Dent, an Australian Researcher, has written an interesting new paper on the history and value of original English patents. Although invention was not the basis of the patent grant, Dent argues that they may still have been based on sound public policy goals.

Dent concedes (from Patently-O's synopsis) that "The manner in which the early modern English monarchs—Elizabeth I and James I—granted patents of monopoly is not seen in a good light in current legal discourse. There are many tales of the nepotism that was, allegedly, rife and the public outrage at the abuses of the Crown—circumstances that only ended with the "triumph" of the Statute of Monopolies in 1624." Right. No surprise.

However, argues Dent, "This simplistic understanding does not do justice to the good intentions of Elizabeth and James; and, to an extent, may be inaccurate." Amazing! The opposition to nepotistic and utterly unjustified state monopoly grants is "simplistic," and does not "do justice" to the monarchs' "good intentions". Ha! Dent actually argues that

three key policy objectives informed the monopolies awarded by the two monarchs. ... These goals—increased employment levels, an improved balance of trade with other countries and the better regulation of industries—not only appear to be modern, but also may be understood to have been fundamental to the modernisation of English society and its economy. Examples of these goals in practice include the granting of monopolies for water pumping inventions to more effectively mine for minerals (increasing both goods production and employment); grants for the establishment of local industries, based on imported technical knowledge, to reduce the reliance on foreign goods; and the regulation of manufacturers to improve the quality of goods available for sale. Economic historians note that the English economy underwent significant change in the 16th and 17th centuries; this change may have been, in part, a result of the policy actions of the Executive of the time. Actions that included the grant to individuals and companies of the now-maligned grants of monopolies.

 

So here we have it: not only is the monopolistic origin of our modern invention-based patent system not embarrassing, it was a good thing, similar to our modern legislative "tweaks" of "unbridled" capitalism. Seen in this light, modern patents and ancient ones have a lot in common.

Author:

Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.