Lessons from the Past: The Venetian Republic’s Tailoring of Patent Protection to the Characteristics of the Invention
17 Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. (forthcoming May 2020)
47 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2019 Last revised: 18 Jul 2019
Date Written: February 9, 2019
In recent years, much discussion in patent law has revolved around granting tailored protection to provide better incentives to inventors in different industries and to increase patent quality. For example, the deliberations that led to the enactment of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) focused specifically on the role of the patent system in different industries as well as on modifying remedies and patent terms to reflect the needs of distinct technology sectors. Whereas in the literature there seems to be substantial agreement on the fact that tailored protection would be beneficial for the effectiveness of the patent system, there is no consensus with respect to which entity should be vested with the authority to produce tailored patent policies, standards and rules based on the needs of the various industries. Currently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are the two principal candidates for this role. Some of this debate is connected to the broader issue in legal academia of granting general regulatory authority to administrative agencies with highly specialized knowledge. Contrary to other administrative agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Congress has never granted such authority to the USPTO; scholars have criticized this inconsistency. The strongest argument they have used to question the current status of the USPTO refers to the fact that much could be gained from the information that this agency has accumulated through years of experience working with inventors in different industries, particularly with respect to tailoring patent protection. Historically, the Venetian Republic provided tailored patent protection based on the characteristics of the invention. In that context, the entity entrusted with the power to tailor the protection granted in each case was the Senate, the issuing authority. Moreover, although the Venetian Republic enacted what is widely recognized as the first Patent Act in the world in 1474, the Venetian Senate continued its practice of granting tailored patents until the end of the Republic in 1797. In fact, as explained by Luigi Sordelli in 1974, following the enactment of the 1474 Act, inventors could obtain protection in Venice in two ways: through the newly created statutory system or through the much older customary system of senatorial grants. Conclusive evidence that Sordelli’s view was correct is provided in a separate paper that I co-authored with Ted Sichelman and Toni Veneri, in which we shed important new light on the true origin of patent law. In this article, I focus instead on tailoring patent protection. Specifically, I use original documents from the Venetian State Archives to present a detailed account of how the Venetian Republic used its customary patent system to tailor protection to the unique characteristics of an invention. Furthermore, I provide a full analysis of what can be learned from the Venetian experience to inform the modern debate on tailoring patent protection. Until now, only two other legal scholars have conducted extensive examinations of the original Venetian patents: Ted Sichelman and Sean O’Connor. The Venetian patent system appears to have been a very successful one; it operated for more than 300 years and during the 16th century helped Venice to transform itself from being a nation of sailors to being a nation of artisans and engineers, and ultimately the center of technological development in Europe. Thus, the Venetian customary patent system offers important lessons on how tailored patent protection and higher patent quality can be achieved. An accurate description of this system is crucial to further understanding the specific steps that we should take to reach these goals today.
Keywords: Patents, USPTO, origin of patent law, tailoring of patent protection, Venetian patents
JEL Classification: K00, K10, K33, O73, O31, O34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation