400th anniversary of Statute of Monopolies

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400th anniversary of Statute of Monopolies

29 May 2024 marks the 400th anniversary of the Statute of Monopolies, a major milestone for the sturdy roots of our intellectual property system that has supported a thriving forest of innovation ever since.

This foundational Act planted the seed from which both our concept of an invention and our modern system of Patent Law has grown.

As England emerged from the Middle Ages into the modern era, the Crown granted monopolies to individuals to control industrial production and gain licensing revenue. By the early 1600s, the Crown frequently awarded excessive and unfair monopolies for inventions and trades that weren’t new. Unrest was growing, and in response, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies, the first statutory expression of English patent law.

All existing monopolies were revoked. Rather than granting long-term monopolies without reason, the seed of the “patent bargain” was born. An inventor could receive a short-term monopoly for their invention, no longer than 14 years, provided their invention was new.

With protection for valuable innovations assured, the Statute of Monopolies incentivised invention while ensuring the fruits of these innovations were available to all. Letters patent or “litterae patentes”, means “letters that lie open” and were called as such because they were able to be read by anyone.

This seed of an Act has since grown into a mighty tōtara of a legislative instrument, shaping current legislation (including our own Patents Act 2013) and influencing its interpretation. Despite being written back when the hottest new invention was a better horseshoe, the Statute of Monopolies and the concept of a patentable invention has covered everything from lightbulbs to smartphones, from horse-drawn carriages to self-driving cars, and from harvesting machines to life-saving cancer therapeutics.

Kiwi ingenuity is no stranger to innovation and the patent system. Who would have thought that a law passed in 1624 could apply to AJ Hackett’s bungy jump apparatus or the world-famous ZORB?

As we look ahead to the next 400 years of innovation, who knows what the future will bring in terms of new technologies? We can surely expect something as unimaginable to us as a computer in your pocket would have been 400 years ago.

The principles enshrined in the Statute of Monopolies show that new innovations are precious and worth protecting, and should be shared for the benefit of all. In the ever-growing and changing realm of invention, these principles will continue to stand strongly rooted in our IP system.

Published on May 29, 2024