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History of the USPTO

A History of the United States Patent Office

By: Jason O. Watson, creator of Historical-Markers.org
(Continued from Page 1)

Shortly after the First Congress assembled, a bill was presented to comply with the Intellectual Property Clause as well to address President Washington's concerns that such a law be enacted as soon as possible. In his first address to Congress on January 8, 1790, he stated, "I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement, as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertion of skill and genius at home."6

The Patent Act of 1790 (H.R. 41, introduced February 16, 1790, passed March 10, 1790) was crafted in part by Thomas Jefferson. As a result, it incorporated many of his beliefs including requirements for patents to have models submitted with all applications. Jefferson believed that ideas should not be patentable, rather patents should be issued only for physical inventions that have been reduced to practice.

An obvious imitation of the British patent system, the first American patent law limited the life of patents to fourteen years, with no possibility of an extension. This provision caused debate from inventors who wanted extended protection times on their patents since it took several years to commercialize their inventions. An important clause to the 1790 Patent Act was the disqualification of foreign (imported) patents - Jefferson firmly believed that only American citizens should be afforded the benefits of obtaining patent rights.7 The Act contradicts Washington's request for the "introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad," an issue that was later addressed by Congress in 1836.

While Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were generally opposed to the awarding of limited monopolies to inventors, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were in favor of providing inventors with rewards for their inventions. Madison favored a system that would give inventors monetary prizes, or other rewards. This type of system is evident in the 1787 promise from Congress to James Rumsey of 30,000 acres of land in Ohio if he could demonstrate a steamboat that traveled up the Ohio River.8 The case of the steamboat is particularly interesting because rights were given to Rumsey, as well as to John Fitch for the same invention.

The Patent Act of 1790 is the result of a compromise between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists that complies with the Intellectual Property Clause of the Constitution. As a result, the need to reward inventors for providing a socially beneficial innovation is addressed within the Act.

To address the shortcomings of the 1790 Act, Thomas Jefferson wrote a bill that was introduced in Congress on February 7, 1791. The bill proposed the elimination of the three-member cabinet panel requirement to grant a patent, and instead required only the signature of the Secretary of State. The bill stated that descriptions of newly issued patents be published in various newspapers, as well as filed with all the U.S. District Courts. Additionally, a provision that would protect the non-intentional, non-commercial use of a patented invention from an infringement suit was included.9 Had this bill passed and remained in effect, many of the present-day's legal issues regarding patents and intellectual property rights could have been avoided.

Alexander Hamilton drafted a competing patent bill that was introduced on March 1, 1792. This bill addressed the issues of handling cases in which disputes regarding overlapping patents were handled. Hamilton proposed that the Supreme Court of the United States settle such arguments. Additionally, he inserted a provision that allotted the revenue from patent fees to be allocated for the purchasing of books and other scientific apparatus as well as for the establishment of a national library.10 An examination of both Jefferson's and Hamilton's proposed legislation reveals that both sides of the political spectrum during this time were interested in the Federal government's promotion of scientific endeavors. The only significant debates were over the details of implementation and the Constitutionality of direct Federal support for science.

After several revisions and additions, various elements of both Hamilton's and Jefferson's bills resulted in the Patent Act of 1793. This Act formally created a Patent Board, comprised of the Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Secretary of War. The responsibility of the issuance of patents belonged to the Department of State (at the time under Jefferson). A patent would be issued if two-thirds of the Patent Board determined the invention as "sufficiently useful and important."11 Oftentimes the various cabinet members were not experts in any specific art or scientific field. Likewise, many were not familiar with science and technology in general (Jefferson, of course, was an exception). These men often had other pressing duties that they were occupied with. As a result, many patents were issued that perhaps should not have been while other worthy patent applications were neglected.

Article is continued on Page 3

All images and content © 2004-2013 Jason O. Watson. All rights reserved.

For further information, or to contact, send e-mail to: watson@alumni.virginia.edu
This project commenced January 14, 2004