History of the United States Patent Law

In America in the early colonial period, there were no general laws providing for the issuing of patents. However, people who invented new products could appeal to the colonial governments, which could grant them the exclusive commercial right to the products. The earliest of such rights granted in the colonies was in the state of Massachusetts in 1641. The Massachusetts General Court gave Samuel Winslow an exclusive right to utilize a new process of making salt for 10 years.

The case is unofficially known of as the first “patent” in America. Other similar exclusive commercial rights were granted in other colonies and later states of the United States of America. These acts were all private acts of the colony or state governments to grant commercial privileges to specific people, before general laws regarding the issuing of patents were passed in each state. This custom of using private acts to grant patents is often said to have come from the early in England, particularly the English Statute of Monopolies of 1624.

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Near the end of the 18th century, states started to pass general patent laws replacing the case-specific acts. These state-level general acts set up standardized procedures for patent applications, an examination process, and general terms for patent holdings. The first state to pass a general patent law was South Carolina, in 1784.

This first general patent act of the state of South Carolina is titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Arts and Sciences. Although most of its terms concerned the protection of copyrights, it also included the following provision: “The Inventors of useful machines shall have a like exclusive privilege of making or vending their machines for the like term of 14 years, under the same privileges and restrictions hereby granted to, and imposed on, the authors of books. ”  Many other states followed suit in passing general patent acts, most using a 14-year term, resembling English practices.

However, without a federal system, patentees who wanted to use their invention in more than one state had to apply separately for patents in each state, which was expensive and time-consuming. A standardized national patent law was needed for more efficient patent grating process.

The Constitution of the United States, first adopted on September 17, 1787, had a provision for protecting intellectual properties. The provision is found in Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have Power. To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. ”

The Patent Act of 1790 was the first federal patent statute of the United States. It was titled “An Act to promote the Progress of Useful Arts. ” The statute was concise, it only included seven sections. Similar to the state statutes, the federal statute allowed the patentees a 14-year term of exclusive right to use their inventions, without the possibility of an extension.

This was unsatisfactory to many inventors who wanted extended protection time for their inventions. They argued that 14 years were not enough, given that it often took several years already for their inventions to be commercialized. Another important point of the Patent Act of 1790 was that it did not allow foreigners to obtain patents in the United States. In the Patent Act of 1790, the power to grant or refuse patents was given exclusively to three people: the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General.

Patent applicants needed the consent of at least two of the three officials to obtain a patent. The act provided that an examination process be carried out by the same three officials to decide whether the inventions were “not before known or used” and “sufficiently useful and important”. This examination process was soon criticized as taking unreasonably too much time. At the same time, the people responsible for examining and granting patents had other important duties to attend to and could not carry out the process quickly. It took several months for a patent to be examined.

In 1793, the 1790 act was repealed and replaced by the Patent Act of 1793. The act was notable for its definition of the subjects of patents which remains unchanged until now: “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter”. In this later act, the patent application process was much simpler than in the Patent Act of 1790.

People who sought patents only needed to petition the Secretary of State and then it was the duty of the Secretary of State to acquire examination from the Attorney General. The examination process was simplified by dropping the clause that patented inventions needed to be “sufficiently useful and important”. It was enough that inventions were somehow useful, even if the usefulness was insignificant, and “not before known or used” to be granted patents. Obtaining patents became much easier during the period after the Patent Act of 1793 and the next federal Patent Act passed in 1836.

Between the Patent Act of 1790 and that of 1793, only 55 patents were granted, but by July 2, 1836, a total of 10,000 patents had been granted. This however, came at an expense of the quality of patents granted. Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State at the time, realized the need to employ experts into the patent examination process. He hired personnel from the University of Pennsylvania to help with determining the novelty and usefulness of the inventions. When more and more patent applications came in, the patent office, which was still loosely organized, was unable to adequately examine every application.

In his book “Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities” Dupree commented: “The patent office languished, but inventors were ever more active. ”Patents were granted to objects and procedures which were not original inventions or not useful. As this ineffective situation went on, more law suits were filed over patent validity and infringement. Patentees were dissatisfied, and courts were overwhelmed with patent lawsuits.

In 1836, another federal Patent Act was passed to reform problems in the previous acts. The Patent Act of 1836 was significant in a number of ways. Firstly, the act created an official Patent Office, which was still a part of the Department of State, but no longer under the duties of the Secretary of State. It freed the Secretary of State from the enormous duty of granting patents, when he had many other significant tasks to tend to. Instead of the Secretary of State, the Commissioner of Patents chaired the Patent Office. This restructuring of the patent office allowed for more efficient process of patent applications.

Secondly, the act prevented the applications of already patented inventions by requiring information on newly granted patents to be made publicly accessible at libraries throughout the country. Anyone could consult this information to check whether his or her invention was truly original before filing for a patent. This greatly improved the quality of patents granted.  Thirdly, the act resolved a long standing dissatisfaction on patent terms by allowing, for the first time, a possible extension of 7 years of protection in addition to the original 14-year term.

With the permission of the Commissioner of Patent, upon appropriate reasons, patentees could appeal to have their protection extended. And lastly, it finally removed the US nationality and residency requirements, making it possible for foreigners to file for US patents.


  1. Manufactures of the United States in 1860; compiled from the original returns of the eighth census, under the direction of the Secretary of the interior. U. S. Government Printing Office. 1865. p. cxcix.
  2. The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine , Volumes 8-9. South Carolina Historical Society.
  3. Cooper, Thomas (1838). The Statutes at Large of South Carolina: Acts from 1716 to 1752. A. S. Johnston. p. 805.
  4. National Research Council (1993). Global Dimensions of Intellectual Property Rights in Science and Technology. National Academies Press. p. 49
  5. Constitutional Rights Foundation, Bill of Rights in Action WINTER 2008 (Volume 23, No. 4). “The Origins of Patent and Copyright Law”. Retrieved 26 March 2013

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History of the United States Patent Law. (2016, Oct 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/history-of-the-united-states-patent-law/