The Definition of "Patent Act"
Early Patent Law
- Congress passed the country's first Patent Act in 1790. This legislation gave the secretary of war, secretary of state and attorney general the power to grant patents lasting 14 years for original inventions deemed "sufficiently useful and important." Thomas Jefferson amended this standard just three years later, expanding the definition of patents to include any "new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter" or a useful improvement on a previous invention. This change increased the number of patents granted.
- As the number of patent applications increased, the government had difficulty administering the patent process efficiently. As a result, Congress passed the Patent Act of 1836, which created a Patent Office responsible for reviewing applications for and granting patents. This act also led to the distribution of new patents to libraries throughout the nation, which allowed potential applicants to review prior applications and enhanced the quality of patent applications. This also led to an increase in the number of patent applications. Patents under the new act also lasted 14 years but could be extended for an additional seven years at the discretion of the commissioner of the Patent Office.
- The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 served as the federal government's first attempt to limit cartels and monopolies. Although patents weren't directly affected by the act, the notion of a monopoly on ideas and inventions lost significant popularity among the American public. The first half of the 20th century saw the judicial branch taking steps to limit the reach of patents--most notably, in 1941, the Supreme Court ruled that patents could be granted only for inventions that revealed "a flash of creative genius."
Patent Act of 1952
- In 1952, Congress passed the most significant reforms of American patent law since the 1790 act. One major change was a new requirement that patent applicants provide a standard for infringement of their invention--in other words, an explanation of what would constitute a prohibited replication of their invention. In addition, the former standard of "new and useful" was made more stringent: Patents would be granted only for inventions that were "non-obvious."
21st Century Attempts at Reform
- The new millennium has included several attempts by Congress to pass new reforms to patent law. According to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the legislators pushing for reform, "Innovation has been impeded in recent years by a patent system that too often grants low-quality patents with overly broad claims." Legislation introduced to Congress in 2009 shifts the country's patent model to a "first-to-file" system, which considers patents based on the date of filing rather than the date of invention. The proposed bill would also limit damages stemming from violations of patents and simplify the process for appealing them.