In order to appreciate U.S. patents, it is important to first understand the history of patent law. There are claims that patent law was modeled after the “monopolies” which were allowed by medieval rulers in the 5th to 15th centuries; however, whether these were actually the product of written patents is, as you might imagine, challenging.
In 1474, a law was approved in Italy which granted inventors exclusive rights to their creations. By many, this is considered to be the first original patent law. About 150 years later, in England, a proposal was passed called the “Statute of Monopolies,” which defined a patent as any “new” invention and stated that the monopoly on the invention would be limited to 14 years. Another 150 years passed before an innovative law was accepted in France which stressed the inventor’s property rights to his/her invention. The laws passed in Italy, England, and France facilitated American patent law as we know it today; however, the fundamentals of U.S. patent law are decisively established in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 8, which states, “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties ... 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 US Patent Act was first established in 1790 and allowed patents for 14 years to “useful, important and new” inventions. The most significant mechanism of this act was that it required all patent submissions to have a description of the invention at the time of application. This Patent Act was amended by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1793 and now defined a patent as “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 1849, a slight modification was made to the Patent Act and extended the definition to include the words “non obvious to other professionals in the same field.” By the 1950’s, the standard configuration of U.S. patent law was established with one significant change so that the law now stated that not only does an inventor have to submit a detailed description of their invention, they must also define the foundation for its infringement.
The most recent modification in the U.S. Patent Act was completed when Congress passed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) in 2011. This legislation is noteworthy because the Act shifts the U.S. patent system from a “first to invent” to a “first inventor to file” structure; this change also abolishes interference actions.