Australian patent law is consistent with its English origins.

While the commencement of patent law in its codified embodiment has been attributed to the Venetian Patent Statute of 1474, there has been a suggestion that the granting of patents may actually have begun in Ancient Greece in around 500 BC where a monopoly of one year was granted for the creation of unique culinary dishes notwithstanding the modern and realistic prohibition on the protection of recipes.

Royal letters patent (or “open letters”) were first granted to members of the craft guilds who petitioned the English Crown for trade monopolies to exclude foreign artisans namely, their European competitors from Germany and France. One of the first recorded English patents was granted in 1449 to one, John of Utynam by King Henry VI for the making of stained glass windows for Eaton College. Significantly, Venetian glassmakers had been issued patents by the Republic of Venice over 20 years beforehand and must have been
considered a commercial threat.

Unfortunately, as letters patent were granted only to ‘favored persons’ namely, those who were prepared to pay for them; the power for the Crown to raise money from their issuance was open to vast abuse. This abuse reached its height during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, where for example, it incredibly extended to the right to sell common goods such as starch and salt.

To her credit, Elisabeth I’s strategies for bolstering the Crown’s coffers by way of letters patent did include the practices of granting them to the likes of the privateer, Sir Francis Drake (to plunder the Spanish Main) and the Virginian colonist and introducer of smoking to England, Sir Walter Raleigh. Although public disfavor was mainly directed at the beneficiaries of the monopolies i.e. the patentees, there was much outcry over the Crown’s abuse of the system. This led to all monopolies being revoked by Elisabeth I’s successor, James I who passed the Statute of Monopolies in 1624 albeit after it was initially ‘thrown out’ by the House of Lords.

Inter alia, Section 6 of the Statute held that the monopoly or royal patent henceforth:

  • Applied to any new ‘manner’ of manufacture ( including both the creation and design of an object);
  • Last no longer than 21years or under ( purportedly amounting to two apprenticeship terms to afford some
    protection to the master);
  • Be granted only to the first and true inventor;
  • Must not be contrary to law;
  • Must not be mischievous to the state, by raising prices of commodities at home;
  • Nor to be hurt of trade;
  • Nor be generally inconvenient.

The Statute of Monopolies (aka the Statute of James) is the basis of modern patent law of most if not all
Commonwealth countries. It is enshrined in the Australian Patents Act 1990 which specifies that the test
for patentability must relate to “a manner of manufacture within the meaning of section 6 of the Statute of
Monopolies” (see Section 18, Patents Act 1990).

Some famous Australian inventions include:

  • Electric drill 1889 invented by Arthur James Arnot and William Brain -not the portable electric drill as we
    now know, but to drill rock and dig coal.
  • Winged Keel 1982 invented by Ben Lexcen ( Aka Bob Miller)- resulted in Australia II winning 1983
    America’s Cup Wi-Fi 1992 invented by John O’Sullivan and CSIRO- originally developed in radio astronomy in searching for black holes.
  • Inflatable aircraft escape slide 1965 invented by Jack Grant, an employee of QANTAS Black Box Flight Recorder 1958 invented by David Warren and Melbourne research team investigating why the Comet airliner suffered a series of crashes.
  • Cochlear implant 1970’s invented by Prof. Graeme Clark who implanted the first bionic ear in 1978.
  • Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine 2006 invented by Prof Iain Frazer and Dr Jian Zhou-vaccine to combat
    the human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Triton Workcentre 1976 invented by George Lewin -ABC The Inventors show-he received over 1000
    orders the day after show.
  • Stump jump plough 1876 invented by brothers Richard and Clarence Bowyer Smith- hinged and weighted plough shares which rose over mallee stumps and rocks and on clearing them were forced back into the ground by attached weights.
  • CPAP (continuous positive airflow pressure) mask and system 1981 invented by Prof. Colin Sullivan of
    Sydney University- to combat sleep apnea which results in a drop in blood oxygen levels due to sleep
    disordered breathing.
  • Hills Hoist 1945 invented by Lance Hill adapting the design of Gilbert Toyne by adding a winding mechanism to raise and lower the rotary clothesline.
  • Owen gun 1941 invented by Evelyn Owen – lightweight, reliable, simple disassembly and reassembly, cheap to manufacture machine gun designed for the Australian army in WWII.

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Written by: Jaime Massang  – Aspides Patent, Trade Mark and Design Attorneys.