A Brief History of Idea Monopoly
The ability we have, as humans, to invent and create, has been with us since time immemorial. We were inventing new things long before civilization and governments existed. We are, in fact, the creators of civilizations and governments. The right to create, then, is prior to law -- it is pre-government. It is providential. In other words, the right to create does not exist because governments authorize it, but because it is a part of each person.
For most of the world, this right to create was largely unrestricted until the 18th or 19th century. An individual could create at will, using any idea that they encountered or that occurred independently to them.
Sometime during the last 600 years, governments realized that revenue could be earned by granting exclusive monopolies for specific goods to single individuals -- taking away the right to create these goods from everyone else. No one knows exactly when or where this insidious idea first arose, but it appears to have taken an early foothold in England in the 15th century. It worked like this: a monopoly on a particular good was granted for a sum of money or as a favor. In exchange, the Crown agreed to exclude, by force, all others but the grantee from participating in creating that good. These were called patents. In many respects, they were an extension of other unjust monopolies granted by the Crown, such as exclusive monopolies to fish certain waterways, to hunt in certain forests, or to kill and eat certain animals -- monopolies that were almost universally only granted to nobility or well-heeled benefactors. In the case of 16th century England, patents were granted on manufacturing salt, soap, glass, knives, sailcloth -- things that people had first created many centuries (or even millenia) before, and that until the time of grant, could be made by anyone with the resources and knowledge to make them.
This is the little-known and seldom-told origin of patents. This is the legacy on which our current patent systems build.
We continue to propagate these systems of artificially-created monopolies, sponsored by the state and enforced by the state's arm. Along the way, the system has morphed into something entirely new: a mechanism for monopolizing not only physical products, but ideas themselves. The system has been reformed countless times to make it less unjust, by requiring that the patent grant cover something non-trivial, that it be original, etc. But none of these reforms solve the fundamental problem of patent systems, which is that they restrict fundamental human rights: the right to have and use ideas, the right to create.