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How Did Intellectual Property Rights Start?


To the common man, “intellectual property” might seem like it’s purely a product of the post-modern world, but this statement is quite far from the truth. The concept of intellectual property has been around for quite a long time – ever since the advancement of human civilization. While many scholars might try to pinpoint the beginning of IP during 1421 when an Italian inventor was granted the world’s first patent, Robin Jacob, who is a former Lord Justice of Appeal, traces the beginning of IP Laws to 600 BCE.

Today, the world of intellectual property is a fascinating universe with an abundance interesting legal and economic effects. We have seen pharmaceutical companies fight tooth and nail for violation of trademarks. We’ve witnessed authors shutting down the online encyclopedia of the very fictional universe they created.  

old wooden bookshelf

Learning about important moments in the history of intellectual property law helps us to look back on how far we have evolved in terms of legal discipline and how much we have evolved as a society.

The First IP

Many researchers consider the beginning of IP Laws to have been in 1421 Italy, the very first patent-like right in the world was granted. However, there exists records that the earliest record of intellectual property was somewhere around 600 BCE (Sybaris, Ancient Greece). The patent was for bread production, and records stated that it allowed an entire year of exclusivity to be granted to bakers to further their culinary advancements.

Grant of exclusivity is practiced in our legal culture even today. One of the most important aspect of intellectual property laws is that we, as a society, strive to give credit where it is due. The grant of exclusive rights that comes with owning an intellectual property, first and foremost, assists in ensuring that the individual’s talents and their hard work is appreciated.

With the emergence of the Roman Empire, intellectual property rights as we had previously known took a step back. Religion and one’s relationship to God became a more important aspect in one’s life and the Roman Catholic Church gained power steadily. The rise of the Church meant that an individual’s creativity had to take a back seat. Emperor Zeno put an end to sole proprietorship on art and products of the agro industry, and the Church gained full control of society.

Science and technology got a new lease on life during the Renaissance. Engineering progressed dramatically as a result of the influx of new thinking paradigms. However, legal protection for equitable acknowledgment of works of art would come much later, during the European Reformation.

A Return to Exclusive Rights

The Statute of Monopolies, enacted in 1623, empowered a small number of people to exert control over their sector. As a result, publishers held the majority of the rights to authored works. With the author on the losing end of the argument, changes were made to arrive at the present equivalent of the written word license: the copyright. The Statute of Anne, enacted in 1710, granted writers renewable 14-year protection for their original texts.

In the year 1873, Vienna hosted an event known as ‘The World Exposition.’ The goal was to encourage educational, knowledge, and cultural interaction. American inventors, however, declared a boycott of the event. Technology in its contemporary form did not exist in the 18th and 19th centuries, and an inventor’s rights were limited to his or her country. Many aspiring inventors who wanted to take part in the event were concerned that bystanders might copy their unique creations and market them without regard for their best interests.

As a result, a worldwide legal structure was required to give cross-national protection for inventions. Following the incident related with the exposition, a particular law was enacted to provide temporary protection to the objects on display in the exposition. This sparked the concept of enacting a worldwide law for the protection of inventions on a global scale.


The idea of global protection of Intellectual Property rights was discussed among legislative authorities in the early 1800s. The Paris Convention, which was signed in 1883, promoted clarity and collaboration among international jurisdictions. The Berne Convention of 1886 extended the same protection to written statements three years later. Trademarks were also accorded international protection by the Madrid Protocol within a half-decade.

The United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property organization was a shared platform to administer both the Paris and the Berne Conventions. It was commonly referred to by its French acronym, BIPRI.

In 1970, BIPRI was renamed WIPO, which stands for World Intellectual Property Organization. In 1974, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was established as a specialized agency of the United Nations to promote intellectual activities, inspire creativity, and allow technology transfer in order to accelerate global economic development. WIPO currently boasts of 193 member states. It is in charge of 26 treaties, including the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).


It’s clear that IP plays a much larger role in the common persons’ life today than it did centuries ago. Everything we interact with on a daily basis, from mobile phones to movies, have some element of IP in it to some degree. But even when IP rights were not widespread, they have existed for a long, long time. As long as the human mind thrives and creates, IP Laws will continue to exist and evolve.

Author: Medha Mukherjee, Legal Intern at PA Legal.

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