In the 1970s UK patents, seen as an indication of the health of a country's research establishment, were at their peak. But, finds Rhymer Rigby, their levels have been falling for the past two decades.
The citizens of Sybaris in ancient Greece - the very same who gave us the modern word for lovers of luxury - were using a system of patents some 500 years before the birth of Christ. These gave a monopoly on certain types of cookery and typically lasted one year.
In the UK, as elsewhere, the history of patents begins somewhat later. Though various forms of state patronage and protection existed during the early Middle Ages, it is generally agreed that the first English patent was granted in 1449. This went to a Fleming, John of Utyman, and covered the manufacture of a type of stained glass (used in the windows of Eton College). The precedent set, patents continued to be granted in a rather haphazard and partisan manner over the next 150 years.
On his succession in 1603, James I revoked all previous patents and introduced a new system, which, 14 years later, produced the first truly modern patent: No 1 of 1617. Despite his sweeping reforms, however, widespread abuse continued - to such an extent that in 1624 Parliament instituted the Statute of Monopolies, which protected new inventions for a 14-year period. What these patents actually covered was often quite ambiguous, as the literacy rate was so low that no written details were required.
The invention of the steam engine in the following century - patented by James Watt in 1705 - was to have a profound effect on the whole patents system. By the late 1800s, the steam engine had become so ubiquitous that for the first time Parliament allowed patents for inventions that were improvements on existing ideas, rather than original ideas themselves. Obtaining a patent, however, was still a costly and bureaucratic business. An 18th-century inventor would have to visit seven different offices, obtain the monarch's signature twice and, for a patent covering England, Scotland and Wales, stump up £300 - equivalent to over £7,000 in today's money.
The Patent Law Amendments Act of 1852 simplified matters considerably and reduced the fee to £25; the number of annual applications consequently increased from 400 to 2,000. In December of the same year, the Great Seal Patent Office opened in the City of London. Though many of the legislative changes had been aimed at flushing out corruption, they were evidently only partially successful: the first head of the office was sacked for embezzling.
As the 19th century wore on and applications grew, so too did the Office's problems. With nearly 100,000 patents on file and a virtually non-existent record, new patents were being issued for old inventions whose patents had long since lapsed - a situation only remedied by the recruitment of eight clerks to create a comprehensive index. The Patents Act of 1883 clarified the process further and reduced the fee to £5; by 1884, applications had risen to 17,000. The number of patents issued continued to increase up until the first world war, but, as might be expected, fell sharply after its outbreak. A similar pattern can be seen before and after the start of the second world war.
The Patents Act of 1949 allowed for the extension of the terms of protection to make up for the years lost during the conflict. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, when British R&D was at its peak, patents were being granted at the rate of 40,000 a year. In 1977, further legislation extended the maximum patent term to 20 years, while in the same year the advent of the European Patent Convention (EPC) and the Patent Convention Treaty (PCT) allowed patents to be registered on a pan-European basis for the first time.
But, as the graph shows, a negative trend began to emerge. Even allowing for international applications, patent levels have been falling over the past two decades. Increasing globalisation has meant that a British patent is less useful than it once was. Further, the pace of product development in some high-tech industries is so rapid that in some cases a patent is hardly worth registering.
There is another, more troubling reason, however. The level of patent applications has long been seen as an indication of the health of a country's research establishment. British business has been consistently criticised over the past 20 years for the low level of its R&D spending. On the above evidence, the criticism is well-founded.