In 1602, English lawyers argued that: `when any man by his own charge and industry, or his own wit or invention doth bring any new trade into the realm, or any engine tending to the furtherance of a trade that never was before; and that for the food of the realm; that in such cases the king may grant to him a monopoly-patent for some reasonable time, until the subjects may learn the same, in consideration of the good that he doth bring by his invention to the commonwealth, otherwise not'. Not until 1623, however, was the Parliament able to wring a Statute of Monopolies from a reluctant James I.

Carroll Pursell, White Heat: 55

In its Constitution of 1787, the new United States granted to the central government the power to `promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries'. Its first patent law, in 1790, set up a committee of three Cabinet officers, headed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to pass on all patent applications. The task proved too time-consuming for such high officials ... The new law [of 1793 required] only that a statement of originality be sworn and a fee paid... Finally, in 1836, the world's first modern patent law was passed, setting up a Patent Office with quasi-judiciary powers. From then onwards, a patent was prima facie evidence of its validity, since every effort was made to confirm its originality and usefulness. Significantly, a system of discriminatory fees was established, making it more expensive for foreigners than American citizens to get patents, and in a category by themselves, most expensive of all for British applicants.

  Pursell, White Heat: 55-56


Benjamin Franklin was urged in the 1740s by a Pennsylvania governor to patent his newly invented iron stove, but stated that he `declined it from a Principle which ever weigh'd with me on such Occasions, viz: That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Invention of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously' (quoted Pursell, White Heat: 55).

In 1980 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that new life forms fell under the jurisdiction of federal patent law. General Electric microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty had developed a novel bacterial strain capable of digesting a compnonent of oil slicks. Chakrabarty modified an existing bacterial strain by introducing a new DNA plasmid ... into bacterial cells ... In so doing, he produced a new bacterium with markedly different characteristics from any found previously in nature - one having the potential for signficant utility. Chakrabarty having invented something "new, non-obvious and useful", the Court found it natural to protect his product with a patent. A report from the US Office of Technology Assessment [declared]: "the question of whether or not an invention embraces living matter is irrelevant to the issue of patentability, as long as the invention is the result of human intervention".

Paul Rabinow, Making PCR, Chicago 1996: 19