Intellectual Property: A Brief History By Bruce Furst

By Bruce Furst

Intellectual property laws grant individuals exclusive rights to their nonmaterial assets, including music, literature, art, inventions, designs, and phrases.

Today, we recognize intellectual property through trademarks, copyrights, patents, and other legally binding protections. The North German Confederation first used the term “intellectual property” in 1867, providing for legislative protection in its constitution. In 1893, secretariats established by the Paris Convention and the Berne Convention merged to form the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property. The organization now exists as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an arm of the United Nations.

Since the United States was not present at the Berne Convention, the phrase did not enter popular usage in the country until the 20th century and WIPO’s inception. The ideas behind intellectual property law predate the phrase. Historians regard the British 1623 Statute of Monopolies as the first patent law and the 1710 Statute of Anne as the first copyright law. Queen Elizabeth I granted monopoly privileges to individuals, an early form of patent law that gave them the exclusive right to produce and sell the invention. Two centuries later, the Queen’s prerogative entered into formal law. In the 19th century, several European philosophers and theorists argued the feasibility of intellectual property law and what qualified for protection under new laws.

At present, intellectual property laws primarily drive innovation and creativity. If an individual possesses the exclusive rights to an invention, he or she sees a real financial incentive to create and a way to defray the costs of research and development. Most large businesses now possess value primarily in their intellectual property.

Over the past century, businesses invested in the development of intellectual property have rapidly expanded, generating increasingly more revenue than more traditional industries. For more insight into the foundations of modern copyright and patent law, watch the following brief documentary: