Intellectual Property: Long Story Short


When did the concept of intellectual property emerge? Let´s celebrate the World IP Day with a little excursion into IP history.

When was the first idea born?

Creativity has been the hallmark of human nature since the dawn of time. From pre-historic cave paintings to DaVinci and Mozart´s masterpieces, humans have been capable of incredible feats. But when did the idea of protecting one´s ideas emerge? Celebrating World Intellectual Property Day is a chance to reflect on the long history of innovation protection.

Ancient origins

Early forms of IP protection can be traced back to the first civilisations. For example, Ancient Greece had a law requiring authentic copies of dramatic works of great Athenian thinkers to be preserved in the city’s archives to safeguard their creative integrity and avoid alterations from the originals.

Romans, too, were concerned with plagiarism, often exposing “false poets” who copied from others. Exposed authors then risked trials and societal disgrace. Although IP law was still in its cradle, some ancient juristic concepts are still used today! For example, the Court of Justice of the European Union has referred to the Roman distinction between a work (corpus mysticum) and its tangible support (corpus mechanicum) in a recent case about posters of artwork sale.

In the Middle Ages, the importance of resolving copyright disputes became apparent when a quarrel between two Irish monks over a manuscript culminated into a full-blown battle. The medieval systém of guild marks also protected producers, imposing strict obligations on the goods´ quality. Failure to comply with the quality standards of marked goods or brand misuse was punished.

Renaissance and Humanism

 The idea of intellectual property gained traction only with the Renaissance and the emergence of the "sovereign individual" idea. The first-ever recorded patent belonged to engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed a ship or machine that could transport goods on waterways at a reduced cost compared to standard methods. In the same century, the English King Henry V awarded the first industrial privilege to stained glass producer John Utynam, granting him a 20-year monopoly over sale and production.

IP as we know it today took shape During the Modern Age. Political systems shifted from one of the "privileges" that a monarch or ruler granted to one of legal "rights" - thus, IP rights were born. It started with the 1624 Statute of Monopolies in England, whereby the monarch would exceptionally grant a 14-year “letter patent” to great inventions. Then, in 1710, the Statute of Anne granted 14-year rights over “copies of printed books”. IP rights were also included in the US Constitution to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing authors exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries for a limited time. The US Congress enacted the first federal patent statute in 1790; the same year, the first federal copyright legislation was adopted.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution marks yet another major chapter. The emergence of new technologies and the specialisation of craftsmen give rise to entirely new markets. Slow, Time-consuming craftsmanship is replaced by mass production, increasing the number of labourers and competing firms. Producers started using branded packaging to differentiate their products and to build customer loyalty. Soon, brands started enjoying legal protection in the form of trademarks, while producers and inventors benefited from patent filing.

IP In the Czech Lands

The first IP regulation in the Czech lands was the Law on the Protection of Industrial Marks and Other Designations, issued by Imperial Patent No. 230 on December 7, 1858. Less than a year after its enactment, the famous Pilsner Urquell beer was registered. The law defined a trademark as a special designation used in commercial transactions to distinguish products from various manufacturers. After the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the legal regulations previously valid in Austria-Hungary were adopted by the new state, maintaining the continuity of trademark rights.

By the end of World War II and the establishment of communism, it was believed that trademarks were relics of the old capitalist world and had no place in a socialist society. Due to short-term and long-term economic planning, manufacturers were provided customers without any effort to attract them. This eliminated competition, and producers no longer needed to differentiate their products, making trademarks useless. Only in international trade did Czech trademarks retain their significance.

In 1989, the fall of communism brought back the original importance of trademarks. In 1995, improved legislation removed many administrative obstacles, and the position of the trademark owner was strengthened. By adopting this law in the mid-1990s, the first stage of the reconstruction of the industrial property protection system in the Czech Republic was completed, paving the way for a future harmonisation of domestic legislation with European Union law.