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To some, the Patent Act of 1790, alongside a contemporaneously instituted copyright law, was symbolic of the establishment of nationhood for the former English colonies. But others might contend that it was an historically somewhat surprising first blow laid by a fledgling nation built on ideas against the purest freedom of ideas. America was, after all, founded in great part on the idea that there exist natural and inalienable human rights, and there is no principle in nature which suggests that a person who comes up with a better way of doing something may turn to the power of the government to bar others from themselves assuming the benefits of doing things that very way. Now, America in passing a patent law was an untested country in this regard, a brave new world all its own, able and empowered to take whatever path was of its choosing. It could have decreed that ideas would be as free as some would contend they seemingly yearn to be--and founder Thomas Jefferson had even poignantly pronounced the principle that ideas were like candles; one could light the candle of another, and yet in so doing keep the flame of their own candle burning undiminished. Ideas could be spread all over the world at no detriment to their originating thinker. But naturally, Jefferson was speaking more of political and philosophical conceptions, and not the especial expressions governed by copyrights, much less better ways to thresh grain or shear sheep.

But America chose the path of restricting the freedom of ideas, of allowing 'for limited times' (as permitted by the authority of the Constitution) the ransoming of advancements which might be beneficial to any and all. And, moreso, to punish the second comer who independently arrives at the same soluton, unknowingly following on the tail of some thinker three counties over. And why? Quite likely, because the cut-off mother nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain et al, had held such a practice, and America pointedly adopted many English practices taken as emblems of a civilised land. Others included trial by jury (which even modernly remains a rare thing even in liberal democracies the rest of the world over), the bicameral legislature, and the essential criminal and civil law patched together since time immemorial. And, naturally, comparable patent pronouncements had issued from many other Western nations in that era, which contrasted with the long-established oriental principle that all inventions owed their due to the previous inventions on which they built, and could not be barred from those who might further build. And so America, keen to push the legitimacy of its nationhood wished to emulate the behaviours of the established Western nations (and, indeed, one of the first acts executed by the Southern States upon declaring their secession and formation of the Confederacy was to open a Confederate Patent Office, on similar grounds). Granted, there was, as well, the reasoning provided at the time -- which was essentially that some will toil harder in implementing inventions if incentivised by the promise of the extortionability of payment for its enjoyment. But many have striven, and many advancements have indeed been made, from the raw fire of desire to see through an advancement in some field of endeavour. And, to be sure, other avenues of rewarding advancements, for example, setting up prizes (like the curret X-Prize system), or memorialising inventors with statues and stamps and public pronouncements, were considered and discarded by the founders.

But for whatever its drawbacks, the Patent Act of 1790 was at the least more resolute than its successors in requiring that the invention to be given the benefit of the government's enforcing fist must truly be an improvement, something of value to the lives of the people who were to be deprived of its free use; and the term was indefinite -- up to fourteen years (a holdover from the biblically derived obsession with time period multiples of seven), but assumedly within the power of the grantmakers to decide just how long a term a particular claim merited. But even today the proposition that an independent inventor ought to be punished for acting upon the same insight as another at some later point, perhaps even a few days later, is one of the most controversial propositions in all of the law.

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