08 December, 2015

The Origin of IP - Historical Protection of Intellectual Property

The protection of your rights through intellectual property law is not by any means a modern-day quirk, stemming from hundreds of years of (varying levels of) protection or acknowledgement. Many of us who work with IP within the common law are more than familiar with the Statute of Anne in 1709, which offered the predecessor to today's protection of copyright, and the 'renaissance' of monopolizing intellectual efforts outside of pure monetary exclusion, and the Statute of Monopolies a few decades before it. Even so, one could imagine that there would be more historical, potentially ancient considerations containing IP protection, which begs the question: where are the historical origins of IP protection?


As said above, the Statute of Anne was truly the first manifestation of the modern regime of copyright protection in the UK, and subsequently all over the common law, due to its wide-spread adoption within England's (former) colonies. However, the Statute was not the only incarnation of copyright protection in the world up till that date.

According to historical records, one of the first forms of protection for copyright works (as one could argue they were) was in 500 BC when chefs in Sybaris, a Greek colony in Italy, were afforded a monopoly for a year on the creation of specific recipes. Although, indirectly at least, copyright works, this suggests that it could be one of the first instances of copyright protection (more on which can be read here in a modern context). Similarly a few hundred years later, Vitruvius, a Roman author, successfully convicted some poets who had copied and passed off others' works as their own.

Some ancient thinkers were ahead of their time
Both the Romans and the Greeks, especially in the context of comedies, distinguished the appropriation and copying of works by other authors as theft ('furtum'). However, they still allowed for the compilation of two or more plays into one, and even criticism of other works, which were seen as corner-stones of the betterment of knowledge, science and overall the retention of intellectual output.

These examples do not showcase a concrete systematic protection of copyright during ancient times, but illustrates that, even though not protected by law, the unique expression of authors was seen as highly valuable and thus something worth protecting. One can imagine the roots of our current system stemming from ideologies that the Greeks and Romans held dear, and this writer, for one, would like to think this was one of the first steps into the foray of IP in human history.


Trademarks, as many of you will be aware, serve as an indicator of the origin and quality of goods and services, providing an observant consumer the goods and services they have duly paid for. The history of registered trademarks in the UK dates back to the 1800s, with Bass Brewery's iconic triangle being the very first one to be registered under the Trade Marks Registration Act 1875. Even so, our historical predecessors had already used trademarks to great effect before the Act's introduction.

In Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, potters often marked their pottery with distinctive signs (referred to as 'potter's marks'), showing who had made it, and undoubtedly, signalling the craftsmanship associated with that particular item and its maker (examples can be seen here). Although these marks did not serve the same purpose as modern trademarks do, one could argue that, even though they were not a legally protected badge of origin, they were akin to their modern counterparts. Seemingly these marks were never enforced, but one can imagine they potentially were a deciding factor for those who would purchase the items.


The more modern concept of patents derives itself from the 1470s, when the Italian City State of Venice granted 10 year patents to anyone who would make a new and ingenious contrivance in the city of Venice, and notified the State Judicial Office of their invention. The Statute of Monopolies 1623 followed some 150 years later, but the Venetian initiative paved the way for patents as we know it today.

The UK, however, was not entirely outdone by their Italian counterparts, and patents did exist before the enactment of the Statute of Monopolies. Letters of patents could be issued, and duly were, by the Monarchy, and one of the first recorded instances was in 1331. Although not only a way to protect inventions, also conveying monopolies in corporations, titles and other royal grants, they still illustrate the importance of inventions even over 100 years before the enactment of the Venetian patent law.


IP clearly has a long and colorful history, and this only highlights its importance not only in today's world, but for years to come. Whether you are a believer in the common ownership and free dissemination of information, or the protector of the monetary incentives many aspiring (and successful) artists, musicians, inventors and creators often need, you have to appreciate the value that IP gives to all of us. Without our Greek, Roman and Venetian predecessors, who knows what IP laws would look like today.

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