Overview of Intellectual Property Law and Innovation

The Importance of Intellectual Property Law

Since the dawn of the modern age, legal protection of intellectual property has stimulated and rewarded technological innovation and artistic creativity, which in turn have conferred profound and lasting benefits on society.  In major respects, intellectual property law is responsible for the fundamental developments that spawned our modern technological society, which continues to innovate and create at an ever increasing pace.  It is therefore to be expected that intellectual property law is the lifeblood of many of society’s most important industries, institutions, and endeavors.

 Intellectual property includes patents, copyrights, trademarks, and the right of publicity.   Patent law (which was a driver of the industrial revolution) provides inventors, in exchange for full disclosure of their inventions, a just reward to for limited periods of time, to stimulate and accelerate innovation in the technical arts, including pharmaceuticals and a variety of other chemical compounds, machinery, methods of manufacturing, and computer software.   Copyright law (which has been instrumental in the explosive growth in the creative arts in a variety of media) provides a reward to authors for limited periods of time,  to stimulate the creative arts, including text, images, websites, and software. Trademark law (which facilitates consumer product differentiation and has been a driver of consumerism), may be conceived of as protecting a trademark owner’s property right.  Fundamentally, it recognizes the use of symbols as source identifiers for products and services, and protects the right of the public to be free from deception and the correlative right of the trademark owner to prevent the wrongful diversion of trade.  The Right of Publicity (which is of increasing economic importance in the age of celebrity) serves unique purposes, preventing others from commercially exploiting and unjustly profiting from the celebrity of another.

The Role of Patent Law in Driving Technological Revolutions

In the United States, patent law is rooted in the Constitution itself.  The prescience of the framers is nowhere more evident.   In a document that confers legislative authority on the Congress in few specific subject areas, the founders had the foresight to confer the power to grant exclusive rights for discoveries upon inventors in order to promote the progress of the useful arts.  A fundamental precept of American patent law is that the economic incentive of exclusivity is a key to stimulating innovation.   As President Lincoln, an inventor and recipient of a patent himself, explained:  “The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of invention.  The limited exclusivity conferred upon the inventor is the price the public is willing to pay to incentivize innovation; however, the reward to inventors is merely a means to an end.  The great object of patent law contemplated by the founders was to stimulate innovation and thereby confer lasting benefits upon the public at large.

Congress wasted no time exercising the authority conferred.  The first patent statutes were enacted in the 1790’s, with no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson making major contributions to an early patent statute.   Even the framers could not have foreseen what those statutes would spawn in the coming centuries.  Patent protection plays a central role in driving the technological revolutions that transform humanity’s prosperity, longevity, and way of life.  In the 19th Century, there was an avalanche of transformative mechanical and electrical inventions.  The sheer volume of patents was so great in that century, that by the close of the 1800’s, the United States Patent Commissioner reportedly remarked that the patent office would need to close soon, because everything that could be invented had already been patented.  While the story is perhaps apocryphal, it would have been difficult to imagine at the time that the pace of invention could continue at then current rates. Not only did it continue, however, it increased, and innovation entered previously unexplored territories. In the 20th Century, there was a deluge of transformative chemical, biological, electronic, and aeronautical inventions, permitting human beings to travel to other worlds, to electronically store, process, and communicate vast amounts of information globally, and to manipulate the building blocks of life.  At the outset of the 21st Century, it might appear that this century will be the age of biotechnology and quantum computing, but if the past is any guide, the true breakthrough technologies of the coming century will be those not yet imagined.mark, and copyright law.