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Here's a brief history of milestone patents, copyrights and trademarks

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By Paul Niemann

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[JAN. 29, 2004]  This story traces the history of intellectual property in America. Patents, trademarks and copyrights aren't an American invention, though, as they originated in Europe.

The first patent ever issued went to architect Filippo Brunelleschi of Florence, Italy, for his method of transporting goods up the Arno River in 1421. The patent was for a three-year period.

American patents were originally issued by individual states. The first state patent issued went to Samuel Winslow of Massachusetts in 1641 for his new method of making salt. After Congress enacted federal patent laws in 1790, George Washington personally signed each patent, as was customary at the time. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, an avid inventor himself, became the first patent commissioner that same year, even though he originally opposed patents because he considered them to be an unfair monopoly.

The first federal U.S. patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont for his method of making potash. The fee? A whopping $4! Today, patent fees average $4,000.

Prior to having patent numbers, patents contained the inventor's name and date of the patent. When the patent office started issuing numbers in July of 1836, there were already 10,000 patents issued without numbers. A Mr. John Ruggles received U.S. Patent 1 for his "traction wheels."

Mary Kies is believed to be the first woman to receive a patent; it was for her process of weaving straw with silk in 1809. I use the word "believed" because women were not allowed to own property during parts of the 1700s and 1800s. As a result, there may have been other women who received patents, by using only their initials, prior to Mary Kies, while other women simply filed for patents in their husband's name.

There were times in the 1800s when slaves were not allowed to own property, and this included intellectual property such as patents, trademarks and copyrights. Thomas Jennings was a free man running a dry cleaning business in New York City in 1821 when he became the first black man to receive a patent; it was for a dry cleaning process. He used some of his earnings from that patent to buy his family out of slavery.

Surprisingly, an 1861 law passed by the pro-slavery Confederate States of America granted patent rights to slaves. Nine years later, the U.S. government passed a law that gave all black men patent rights.

Sarah Goode owned a furniture store in Chicago when she patented a cabinet bed in 1885, becoming the first black woman to receive a U.S. patent.


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The federal patent laws that Congress enacted in 1790 also governed trademarks and copyrights. A trademark is a word or symbol that identifies the source of a product or company. The world's first trademark is believed to be for two British chefs named Crosse & Blackwell in 1706. It is still in use today -- the trademark, that is, not the chefs!

Some of the more memorable American trademarks have been based on people, such as the leprechaun symbolizing Notre Dame's Fighting Irish, the Gerber baby and the Morton Salt girl. Other trademarks have been based on animals, such as the MGM lion, Smokey Bear and Borden's top saleslady, Elsie the Cow. Trademarks don't need to be based on a real person or animal to be effective, though, as Planters' Mr. Peanut, Prudential's Rock of Gibraltar and the Pillsbury Doughboy have all become permanently etched into our memories.

A copyright protects literary works such as books, plays, articles, poems, songs, movies, pictures and paintings. It lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Even a U.S. president can receive a patent, a trademark or a copyright. George Washington received a trademark for his brand of flour in 1772, and Abraham Lincoln received a patent in 1849 for a device to help navigate boats in shallow waters. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's most successful presidential inventor, chose not to patent any of his inventions.

So how does one know whether a product has been patented, trademarked or copyrighted?

A patented product contains the patent number on the packaging; a trademarked product is shown with the symbol or an "R" inside of a circle, , if it's a registered trademark; and copyrighted material contains a "C" inside of a circle, , along with the year and name of the copyright owner.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann, who can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004


Last week's column in LDN: "The inventor didn't regret missing out on an $8 million fortune"

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