History of idea protection

I have always watched and read with great bemusement the whole discussion on whether protecting someone’s idea and excluding others from using the idea without his or her permission is fair to the society at large. It is important to understand why ideas were protected and how protection has evolved over the years before making up your mind how Intellectual Property (IP) can shape the future of a business, society or even a nation.

One of the first known references to IP protection dates from 500 BC, when chefs in the Greek colony of Sybaris were granted year-long monopolies for creating particular culinary delights. In one of the first cases related to theft of an idea, Roman writer Vitruvius is said to have revealed IP theft during a literary contest in Alexandria. While serving as a judge in the contest, Vitruvius exposed the false poets who were then tried, convicted and disgraced for stealing the words of others.

Lessons from the past

One of the first statutes that protected authors' rights was issued by the Republic of Florence on June 19, 1421 to architect Filippo Brunelleschi. This statute recognized rights of authors and inventors to the products of their intellectual efforts; and built an incentive mechanism that became a prominent feature of Anglo-American IP protection.

The trigger for a full-fledged Copyright Act which came when existence in 1710 in Great Britain, referred to as 'Statute of Anne', was the invention of the modern printing press which flooded the market with duplicate books by printing press owners without any permission or authorization by authors or their publishers. The Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property came into existence in 1883 and Berne Convention for protection of literary and artistic works was signed in Switzerland in 1886 and boasts of 165 countries as signatories as of March 2012.

The history of patents and patent laws started with a Venetian Statute of 1474. This issued a decree by which new and inventive devices, once put into practice, had to be communicated to the Republic to obtain legal protection against infringers. The period of protection was 10 years.

In India, the land of gurukul where Vidya daan (sharing of knowledge) was considered the highest act, knowledge was created and freely shared with others with examples of invention of the number zero by Aryabhatta, wireless telecomm by Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and medicinal properties of neem and turmeric known from ancient literature as highest form of discoveries. The passing of Copyright Amendment Bill 2010 in Parliament, giving more rights and privileges to artists and authors and backed by politicians, is a sign of change in mindsets in India. The basis for providing protection is to promote creativity and innovation in society and as a result provide recognition and financial incentives to creators of ideas.