Did the British Patent System Retard the Industrial Revolution?

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It is commonly agreed that, until approximately 1830, English courts routinely ignored patent rights and that consequently there was little precedential development at common law concerning patents. In the absence of any legislative authority besides the ancient Statute of Monopolies, the consensus of opinion concludes that English patents existed in a state of limbo, undermining their pecuniary value and thus the incentive to invent.

This article revises each step of this argument. Part I examines the legal construction of the English patent and shows that a recognizably modern rationale for the patent, where it was conceived as embodying a contract between the inventor and the public, had already emerged by the 1780s. Part II analyzes how this legal construction facilitated the development of patent law. The article concludes by evaluating the market for patent rights and the ways in which inventors profited from assigning and licensing their patents.

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Cite as

Sean Bottomley, Did the British Patent System Retard the Industrial Revolution?, 1 Criterion J. on Innovation 65 (2016).