Discussions On The Abolition Of Patents In The UK, France, Germany And The Netherlands, From 1869

from the a-bit-of-history dept

In the past, I’ve talked about Eric Schiff’s book Industrialization Without National Patents, which takes a close look at how the Netherlands industrialized during a period of time when it explicitly abolished patents — from 1869 to 1912 — and Switzerland, during a time when the country’s patent system was effectively non-existent for most inventions — from 1850 until 1907. This academic study, which was published in 1971, does a really good job of digging into the data of what happened in two economies during a period of time when they didn’t have patents (spoilers: both did pretty well and actually became centers for certain industries). The Netherlands was perhaps the most interesting, seeing as it was the one country that explicitly chose to abolish its existing patent system in 1869.

Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that such discussions didn’t just take place in the Netherlands, but elsewhere as well. Via Stephan Kinsella and David Koepsell comes the discovery of a book from 1869 concerning Recent Discussions on the Abolition of Patents for Inventions, and covering examples of such discussions in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands (for what it’s worth, Germany also had no patent system until 1877). The book’s subtitle also notes: “With suggestions as to international arrangements regarding inventions and copyright.”

The entire work has been helpfully scanned by Google, and since it’s well into the public domain, can be displayed in its entirety. In fact, the book (quite interestingly!) has a “no rights are reserved” notice in the beginning. So even if it had been published more recently, it would have been considered in the public domain. Nice to see that even back in 1869 authors were willing to support the public domain by choice.

What’s quite incredible as you read through the various letters, speeches and writings in the book is how many of them could fit into today’s debate. Right from the beginning, the points sound similar to what the debates today are about:

The fact is, no one, I presume wishes to say that an inventor is undeserving and should go unrewarded. All that the opponents of the Patent system do say is, that the present machinery gives minimum advantage to the inventor, and inflicts maximum disadvantage on the public. Besides, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the patentee is only a simultaneous inventor with a number of others, who lose their labour and ingenuity because one man happens to get in first….

That sounds mighty familiar. Other pieces point out that patents are incompatible with free trade and, there are regular points about how independent or simultaneous invention is happening in most of these cases, rather than anyone “copying” ideas from one another. There’s also a discussion on how patents create fuzzy boundaries, which make it terrible if anyone is comparing it to any sort of actual “property right.”

The more you look, the more you’ll find lines that sound so familiar:

We acknowledge that the man who first constructed a hut was perfectly right in making good his claim against those who would have deprived him of it, and that he was justified in vindicating his claim by force. He had employed his time and strength in building this hut; it was undoubtedly his, and his neighbours acted up to their natural rights and in their own interests in helping him to oppose the intruder. But there ended both the right of the individual and that of the community.

If this first man, not content with claiming his hut had pretended that the idea of building it belonged exclusively to him, and that consequently no other human being had a right to build a similar one, the neighbours would have revolted against so monstrous a pretension, and never would have allowed so mischievous an extension of the right which he had in the produce of his labour….

And if, in our day, imitation of an invention is not generally considered as guilty an act as robbery of tangible property, it is because every one understands the difference between an idea and a thing made or done.

There are plenty more quotes. Take a look through the collection and enjoy — or be horrified that we’re still having these debates 150 years later, and the situation has become worse, not better.

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Comments on “Discussions On The Abolition Of Patents In The UK, France, Germany And The Netherlands, From 1869”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is great

This Board would therefore deprecate a too great facility in the obtaining of Patents. If the cost be made cheap, every trifling improvement in every process of manufacture would be secured by a Patent. In a few years no man would be able to make such improvement in his machinery, or processes, as his own experience may suggest, without infringing upon some other person’s Patent. Endless litigation would follow, and the spirit of invention in small matters would be rather checked than encouraged.

— The Manchester Chamber of Commerce, 1851

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:


In a few years no man would be able to make such improvement in his machinery, or processes, as his own experience may suggest, without infringing upon some other person’s Patent. Endless litigation would follow, and the spirit of invention in small matters would be rather checked than encouraged.

Who knew that Nostradamus was still alive and well in 1851 and working in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce?

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Revelation!

He wasn’t just there, he also worked for the Economist:

The granting [of] patents ?inflames cupidity’, excites fraud, stimulates men to run after schemes that may enable them to levy a tax on the public, begets disputes and quarrels betwixt inventors, provokes endless lawsuits…The principle of the law from which such consequences flow cannot be just. — The Economist, July 26, 1851

I transcribed/OCRd the whole article, by the way:

Anonymous Coward says:

"Alternate History" ????

“and Switzerland, during a time when the country’s patent system was effectively non-existent for most inventions — from 1850 until 1907. “

“In 1903, Einstein’s position at the Swiss Patent Office became permanent”

“By 1908, he was recognized as a leading scientist, and he was appointed lecturer at the University of Bern. The following year, he quit the patent office and the lectureship to take the position of physics docent[47] at the University of Zurich.”

I like these “alternate history” articles !!!!

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: "Alternate History" ????

There was a law from 1801 — when Switzerland did not exist, and the region was annexed by Napol?on. After the Fall of Napoleon, two Cantons, Tessin and Solothurn, kept the patent law, and they were ditched 1848 as Switzerland became a Nation.

And another one, a “real” patent law, came 1888. There was quite a big discussion about it, if you read german, here’s some sources:

http://dlib-pr.mpier.mpg.de/m/kleioc/0010/exec/books/%22160510%22 — The president of the Swiss industrial union (that’s not a labourers union, but a union of industry giants) argues AGAINST Patents.

http://dlib-pr.mpier.mpg.de/m/kleioc/0010/exec/books/%22102203%22 — official report, arguing against.

http://dlib-pr.mpier.mpg.de/m/kleioc/0010/exec/books/%22171854%22 — A Professor on history and the new law. Rather level and not taking a position.

Anonymous Coward says:

Looks like an argument FOR patents..

So the ‘experiment’ has already been run, and it appears it was a failure, as we still have patents, and those places had a much larger technical revolution post any patent issues post 1900’s.

So what is the point of this argument, if not FOR SUPPORT OF PATENTS !!!

Mr Masnick, do you intend to fight it for another 100 years, considering the great success you ‘types’ seem to (NOT) have had for the past 100+ years ?

I hope you know, in the past 100 years we’ve had a fair amount of ‘technical progress’ particularly post 1910 WITH PATENTS..

So what is your argument, to try the ‘experiment’ again 100 years later, it did not work then, yet it does work with patents, (last 100 years can attest to that).

As a society we have probably had more advancement and innovation in the past 30 years, then we did in the time between 1800 and 1900 !!

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re:


(Yes, there’s a reason for linking to the “Ciba-Geigy”-part. Because Alphons Koechlin-Geigy, of that very same family, argued AGAINST patents in 1878 when he was president of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economiesuisse)

anonymouse says:


Middlemen are a huge part of the problem, wanting to profit from others innovative ideas.

If we had to stop the transfer of patents from the original inventor many of the problems we have would disappear.

And patents should not be allowed to be kept if they are not used within 5 years of being registered.

Simple solutions but those that make billions from using others patents are not going to allow good patent law, they will use as much of their money as is necessary to buy laws, and that is sad for society as a whole.

Damn just imagine if the oil industry was not able to buy patents that would have improved energy storage, we could be riding around in cars that were charged once a week and generating power form devices that only needed one day of sunshine or wind to generate enough energy to run a house for a month.

Yes that sounds far fetched but oil and petrol are multi trillion dollar industries and i am sure that they would have purchased patents to stop anything from interfering with their massive incomes.

Surely that is enough to stop patent law from being so hurtful to the people of earth .

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: middlemen

The problem limiting patents to the inventor is that their is a long and expensive road from invention to saleable products. One way or another funders would gain control over the patented invention, such as requiring an exclusive license before granting funding; which amounts to the same as buying the patent.

out_of_the_blue says:

Evidence from the Robber Baron era, when labor was ruthlessly exploited.

Means no more for now than Roman times.

Get into 21st century, Mike, where globalists and their mega-corporations are literally building millions of spy gadgets, spyware disguised as operating, gadgets up to autos are totally locked down, killer robots are almost here, and there’s no hiding from the surveillance state.

By the way, if you want reading to sound familiar, try Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But you’re not the hero industrialist, Mike; you’re the would-be technocrat who’s only looking for ways to successfully grift in the collapsing / militarized world.

Mike is an economist only for prosperous times. His notions apply only to the dotcom bubble: the net is now being consolidated by a few mega-corporations which are — as all do soon as practicable — entrenching as monopolies to control the formerly open markets. Yes, even your precious Google.

01:55:55[b-026-1] [ This is necessary to suppress the kids here from fraud of using my screen name. ]

Pragmatic says:

Re: Evidence from the Robber Baron era, when labor was ruthlessly exploited.

Atlas Shrugged was written by a narcissist with a girl-boner for a serial killer. http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/08/mark-ames-paul-ryans-guru-ayn-rand-worshipped-a-serial-killer-who-kidnapped-and-dismembered-little-girls.html

You hate “The Rich,” most of whom are “hero industrialists.” It takes money to build factories, you know.

Why not try thinking for yourself instead of via far-right big “L” Libertarian filters?

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