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The First 2000 years of Intellectual Property


The history of IP is rich and varied. More than 2500 years ago the Greek colony of Sybaris (in modern-day Italy) started handing out sole rights to “all who should discover any new refinement in luxury, the profits arising from which were secured to the inventor by patent for the space of a year.” This included stuff like new culinary dishes that innovative chefs came up with.

In England, monopolies in the form of “Letters Patent” were granted by the king or queen to inventors who petitioned them and were approved. A grant of 1331 to John Kempe and his Company is the earliest authenticated instance of a royal grant made for this purpose, although English IP law eventually had to be reviewed in 1623 due to mismanagement and abuse of these privileges by the reigning monarchs.

These Letters Patent (patent means “open” and these documents were sealed with the monarch’s seal in such a manner that it was still possible to read them and to allow others to come up with ingenious ways of progressing past the patent) provided the recipient with a monopoly to produce particular goods or provide particular services.

The first Italian patent was awarded by the then Republic of Florence in 1421. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi received a three-year patent for a barge with hoisting gear, that carried marble along the Arno River in that same year. These types of patent rights were also formalised by statute in Venice in 1474 .

Interestingly, a certain Galileo Galilei was one of the first inventors to have a monopoly right bestowed on him for his new invention the telecscope.