History

The Rise of Intellectual Property, 700 B.C.--A.D. 2000: An Idea in the Balance - part 1

The concept of intellectual property -- the idea that an idea can be owned - is a child of the European Enlightenment. It was only when people began to believe that knowledge came from the human mind working upon the senses -- rather than through divine revelation, assisted by the study of ancient texts -- that it became possible to imagine humans as creators, and hence owners, of new ideas rather than as mere transmitters of eternal verities. 

Besides being distinctively modern, intellectual property is a dense concept, woven together from at least three complex strands of jurisprudence -- copyright, patent, and trademark -- each with its own sources in premodern custom and law, and each with its own trajectory into our own era.

Still, copyright, and the complementary concepts of authors' rights and literary property in continental law - the focus of this essay -- are at the core of the modern concept of intellectual property. It was here in the eighteenth century that the language of "ideas" and "property" first came into contact with one another, and first forged a legal bond. And it was here, too, that the very idea of a property right in ideas was most sharply contested -- at the outset, and to the present day.

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