An Economic Review of the Patent System
Patent, the adjective, means "open," and patent, the noun, is the customary abbreviation of "open letter." The official name is "letters patent," a literal translation of the Latin "litterae patentes." Letters patent are official documents by which certain rights, privileges, ranks, or titles are conferred. Among the better known of such "open letters" are patents of appointment (of officers, military, judicial, colonial), patents of nobility, patents of precedence, patents of land conveyance, patents of monopoly, patents of invention. Patents of invention confer the right to exclude others from using a particular invention. When the term "patent" is used without qualification, it nowadays refers usually to inventors' rights. Similarly, the French "brevet," derived from the Latin "litterae breves" (brief letters), is a document granting a right or privilege, and usually stands for "brevet d'invention."
Defined more accurately, a patent confers the right to secure the enforcement power of the state in excluding unauthorized persons, for a specified number of years, from making commercial use of a clearly identified invention. Patents of invention are commonly classed with other laws or measures for the protection of so-called "intellectual property" or "industrial property." This class includes the protection of exclusivity for copyrights, trademarks, trade names, artistic designs, and industrial designs, besides technical inventions; other types of "products of intellectual labor" have at various times been proposed as worthy of public protection. It has seemed "unjust" to many, for example, that the inventor of a new gadget should be protected..., while the savant who discovered the principle on which the invention is based should be without protection and without material reward for his services to society. Yet, proposals to extend government protection of "intellectual property" to scientific discoveries