225th Anniversary of the First Patent Act
April 10, 2015, 11:08 a.m., Madison Auditorium
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Louis. And special thanks to the Alexandria Town Crier and the members of the Military District of Columbia for their opening music and presentation of the colors! What a perfect start for today’s event. Mr. Marti, Congressman Beyer, Mayor Euille, we’re so honored you could be here today. Danny Marti is the White House’s new Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, and he and I had the unique pleasure of sitting next to each other at not one but two confirmation hearings on The Hill. And I am delighted that we are both here with you today in our new roles.
Congressman Beyer is serving his first term as the U.S. Representative from Virginia’s 8th District, representing Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and parts of Fairfax County. He was the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1998, Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein under President Obama, and currently serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources. We’re so glad you could join us today, Congressman. And of course we’re always happy to have our good friend and neighbor Mayor Euille at our events. He’s been mayor of Alexandria since 2003, which is longer than the USPTO has been here, and we greatly value his friendship and support.
I also want to take a moment to recognize our newly-appointed Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO, Russell Slifer. Russ, I couldn’t be more delighted that you’re on board, and I couldn’t have asked for a more capable deputy. Welcome. We’re also honored by the attendance of four previous Directors of the United States Patent and Trademark Office: Gerry Mossinghoff, Bruce Lehman, Q. Todd Dickinson, and Jon Dudas. Welcome back, gentlemen. And lastly, I’d like to thank the Smithsonian Institution and George Washington’s Mount Vernon for the generous loan of patent office artifacts for the exhibit in the atrium, which I hope you will all visit after this. This is a very special occasion indeed.
225 years ago today, the first Patent Act was signed into law by a famous resident of this area: President George Washington. Only one year had passed since this nation’s Constitution went into effect and the first Congress began its work, not just on the Patent Act, but also on the Copyright Act, also signed into law in 1790. A key author of that Constitution, and in particular the clause that gave us patents and copyrights, was another Virginian, whose name adorns this building. That, of course, was James Madison.
These intellectual property rights come from Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. Known as the Progress Clause, it empowered Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The first Congress set about doing exactly that. The Patent Act of 1790 defined the subject matter of a patent as “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used.”
That Act also created the first Patent Board, whose three members were called the “Commissioners for the Promotion of Useful Arts.” Congress invested these leaders with the authority to grant or refuse a patent after deciding if an invention or discovery was “sufficiently useful and important.” Three of the buildings outside are named after those commissioners: then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. The Patent Board wasn’t quite as busy as today’s examiners. They granted 57 patents during the three years the First Patent Act was in effect. The first issued patent, for an ingredient used in fertilizer, was issued to a Vermonter named Samuel Hopkins. The Patent Act of 1790 was the first of several to follow. Congress further modified patent law in 1793, in 1836, and then again in 1952. Other influencers were the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Federal Circuit Act of 1982. And let us not forget the most recent advancement of patent law, the America Invents Act of 2011.
Now, I realize I’m dating myself here, but when I graduated from law school the Federal Circuit created by the Act of 1982 was still relatively new. Patent law then was the province of a handful of specialists who practiced in patent boutiques, not general practice law firms. With a few exceptions, patents received little scrutiny from higher courts and generalist lawyers, much less the media or the public at large. But today, patents are very much in the public spotlight, commonly debated in the media, in everything from Vanity Fair to This American Life. They are also at the heart of legislation currently being considered on Capitol Hill, such as the Innovation Act in the House and the STRONG Act in the Senate. All of that began with that first Patent Act of 1790—not just by its virtue of being our nation’s first patent act, but by the spirit of innovation embodied in it. The words contained in that act— “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon” laid the groundwork for more than two centuries cumulative, or follow-on innovation: the process of innovations spurring further innovations, for the benefit of all.
Consider the laser. It began in 1960 with Patent Number 2,929,922 for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, or maser, issued to Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow distinguished members of our National Inventors Hall of Fame. Townes later wrote that the “development of the maser and laser, and their subsequent applications in my career and in science and technology generally, followed no script except to hew to the nature of humans groping to understand, to explore, and to create.” Over that same period of exploration and creation, more than 55,000 laser-related patents were granted in the United States, generating billions of dollars through licensing fees and the many laser-based products created in the lab, manufactured at home and abroad, and sold and employed for the benefit of consumers around the world.
Fostering the creative and entrepreneurial environment that made the evolution of the laser—and so many other technologies—possible, remains the central promise of the Patent Act of 1790 and the progress clause of our Constitution. And ensuring that our nation’s patent laws continue to spur that kind of innovation remains one of the key missions of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, now in its third century of existence. I’m very proud of that mission, proud of all those here who perform it, day after day, and proud to lead this great agency.
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