Dr. Chris Dent, an Australian Researcher, has written an interesting new paper on the history and value of original English patents. Although invention was not the basis of the patent grant, Dent argues that they may still have been based on sound public policy goals. I asked to provide a synopsis of the paper for Patently-O readers. The full paper is available here.
The manner in which the early modern English monarchs – Elizabeth I and James I – granted patents of monopoly is not seen in a good light in current legal discourse. There are many tales of the nepotism that was, allegedly, rife and the public outrage at the abuses of the Crown – circumstances that only ended with the “triumph” of the Statute of Monopolies in 1624. This simplistic understanding does not do justice to the good intentions of Elizabeth and James; and, to an extent, may be inaccurate. There is, for example, little evidence of public displays of disaffection at the grants beyond statements made by Parliamentarians, in Parliament, who may have been beholden to interests outside those of the average subject. The thoughts and attitudes of the average early modern person, however, may not be considered worthy of inclusion in a history of English patents.
The intentions, and actions, of the elites of the time are a matter of record. An investigation of the available material – whether as part of the legal, political or economic history of the time – demonstrates that there were good public interest motives behind many of the patents granted by Elizabeth and James. An exploration of the secondary literature on English politics, coupled with a reading of the mercantilist texts (the mercantilists were the closest the society had to economic theorists) and the analysis of court judgments shows that three key policy objectives informed the monopolies awarded by the two monarchs.
These goals – increased employment levels, an improved balance of trade with other countries and the better regulation of industries – not only appear to be modern, but also may be understood to have been fundamental to the modernisation of English society and its economy. Examples of these goals in practice include the granting of monopolies for water pumping inventions to more effectively mine for minerals (increasing both goods production and employment); grants for the establishment of local industries, based on imported technical knowledge, to reduce the reliance on foreign goods; and the regulation of manufacturers to improve the quality of goods available for sale. Economic historians note that the English economy underwent significant change in the 16th and 17th centuries; this change may have been, in part, a result of the policy actions of the Executive of the time. Actions that included the grant to individuals and companies of the now-maligned grants of monopolies.