A single legal concept has produced some of the greatest achievements of the human mind: intellectual property. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle denounced the then novel notion of rewarding those who create inventions beneficial to the state. History has been kind to Aristotle, but not because of his insights on intellectual property. The Venetian Senate's passage of the 1474 Act marked the beginning of systematic patent protection on European soil. Along with blown glassware, Venice later exported its penchant for patent protection to the rest of Europe, including Great Britain by the mid- sixteenth century. During the same era, the British crown granted the first "copyright" after the printing press came to England.
Across the Atlantic two centuries later, the drafters of the United States Constitution held protecting intellectual property in such high esteem that they reserved the founding document's sole reference to "right" for Congress's power "[t]o 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." Shortly after the Constitution's ratification, Thomas Jefferson, a-key proponent of American intellectual property law, elaborated on this right:
"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."
As Jefferson envisioned, American ingenuity-from inventions like Bell's telephone and Edison's light bulb to the artistry of Hollywood and Nashville-has spread throughout the world, fueled by intellectual property law's twin competing goals of providing an incentive for authors and inventors to create while granting the public access to the fruits of their creativity.
Mixing this ingenuity with technological advances, competing policy rationales, and the complexity of marking the metes and bounds of intangible property rights has produced some of the most challenging legal issues of our time. Internet file-swapping technology, which has facilitated the free downloading of millions of songs at a cost of billions to the music industry, has recently come to the Supreme Court. Drug manufacturers stock the United States' shelves with pharmaceuticals that can prolong by decades the lives of those infected with HIV, but twenty-five million Africans with AIDS remain untreated because national patent laws enable manufacturers to set prices those suffering from the disease cannot afford.
W. Russell Taber,
Special Project: Current Issues in Intellectual Property,
58 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol58/iss3/4