A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects

August 2019

By Claudy Op den Kamp, Bournemouth University, United Kingdom and Dan Hunter, Swinburne Law School, Australia.

Quite simply, intellectual property (IP) is the most important subject that most people know nothing about. Which is why, a few years ago, we began working on a book that eventually became A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

The recently published A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2019) tells a vibrant and compelling history of IP using a series of objects to highlight the importance of IP and how it has evolved and worked in human history (photo: Courtesy of Lina and Tom).

Initially, we wanted just to do a simple history of the IP system. But when we sat down to try to tell the story of the way that IP has evolved, we were confronted with a range of problems: IP itself is intangible, the laws creating it are arcane and complex, and the area is often seen as difficult to understand and interpret. And yet, the IP system is one of the most important structuring systems in modern society. It underpins vast industries, such as aerospace, architecture, pharmaceuticals, media and entertainment. It is the locus of concerns about counterfeiting and piracy, it grounds arguments about trade, export and competition, and is at the core of discussions over knowledge-based economies and policies relating to creativity and innovation.

We wanted to convey to everyday readers and specialists alike just why IP matters so much, and why it’s so interesting. So, to tell a vibrant and compelling history of IP, we turned to the objects that embody IP and which wouldn’t exist without IP’s intervention. This idea came from the field of material culture, a discipline of anthropology and sociology that recognizes that one of the best ways to understand a society is to look at the objects it produces. A Grecian urn or a Roman bath house tell us an enormous amount about the way that people lived, what mattered to them, and how their cultures developed.

… the IP system is one of the most important structuring systems in modern society.

So, too, with IP objects. The Coca-Cola bottle and brand exist because of the way that IP made them. The meaning and image of the Barbie doll is as distinct and clear as the sound of a struck bell because of the way that Mattel was able to control representations of the doll via its IP rights. In turn, the value in these objects changed the IP system, as the companies controlling them had a hand in influencing the developments of law.

These objects demonstrate the importance of the IP system. They invite questions about various aspects of its multifaceted development. They show us how IP has evolved and worked in human history and illustrate its influence on a range of historical events and movements. And, perhaps most importantly, they come with some great stories.

The objects and the IP regimes

Some of these objects have so profoundly affected our lives that it’s hard to know what our society would be like without them: the light bulb, the escalator, and the wi-fi router are just some examples of IP objects that have obviously shaped and re-shaped our world. Other IP objects have been just as important, but in less evident ways. The football is an object that we’re all familiar with, but its connection to IP is only clear when you consider how the wealth of professional leagues is dependent on IP laws. And have you ever wondered why the iconic black and white hex-patterned soccer ball was designed that way? (Hint: black and white television likes sharp delineations and bright contrast).

A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects explores products that have profoundly affected our lives and that demonstrate the importance of the IP system (photos: Courtesy of Lina and Tom).

The history of IP started even before IP existed. Chapters on Goryeo Celadon and the Murano glass vase reflect the process of innovation in the centuries before there was a formal intellectual property system. Guilds like the Murano glassblowers and numerous rulers of pre-modern societies had learned the lesson underlying the entire IP system: control of intangible resources is a difficult, but vital, component of well-functioning societies. This lesson became even more evident during the Industrial Revolution, where patents in particular were central to the success of the Edison light bulb, the Morse telegraph, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

One of the fascinating aspects of creating a history of IP is to see how different regimes affected different ages and different industries. If patents were vital in the Industrial Age, then copyright was important in the pre-industrial era, as it is in the Media Age in which we now live. A number of the objects in the book trace copyright’s venerable lineage – and its ongoing importance – beginning with Tempesta’s map of Rome, through the piano player roll, the audiotape cassette, the 3D printer, the CD, the Betamax, the photocopier, and eventually culminating in the Internet.

Trademarks are equally important, but in different ways and in different eras. Objects like the Lego brick, the Barbie doll, and the Coca-Cola bottle are heavily dependent on trademark protection. And the doctrine of trademark genericide – a brand that morphs into its product – is discussed in the entries on the escalator, champagne, and the Singer sewing machine.

Politics, people, places.

But it’s not all about the laws. Sometimes it’s about the social or political context, or the people or the places. The genesis stories of IP objects show the importance of this: objects as diverse as the Ferragamo wedge (shoe) and the Aspirin pill are described as the result of limited international trade due to war – Mussolini’s war in Ethiopia and World War I, respectively.

Other times it’s about the people concerned. Thomas Edison appears in no less than six entries. And who knew that Sherlock Holmes and Alexander Graham Bell both had a partner named Watson? The chapter on the Chanel 2.55 bag echoes Coco Chanel’s aphorism that “imitation is the highest form of flattery” – a business strategy that is personal to her, and quite contrary to that of the current House of Chanel.

And when you take all of the stories in this book together, some remarkable observations are clear. For example, certain places show their importance. Was it the long, cold winters that made Rochester, New York (USA) the breeding ground of the Kodak camera, privacy laws, and the Xerox photocopier? We will probably never know.

The publication seeks to convey to everyday readers and specialists alike just why IP matters so much, and why it is so interesting (photos: Courtesy of Lina and Tom).

A history

So why try to tell a history at all? Playwright Eugene O’Neill once said, “There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again, now.”

Our book is called “A” history of intellectual property and not “THE” history of intellectual property because the telling of any history is always partial. These partial histories do meet and intersect at points, but are also provisional.

In collecting these marvellous stories about IP objects, we brought together a group of contributors from law and history, and also from sociology, media studies, horticulture, science and technology studies, and many others, across a range of countries. We wanted to understand where intellectual property laws have come from, how they have evolved, and what they mean to our lives now.

Whether found in a gallery, an archive, a home or a supermarket, these mundane and extraordinary objects are meant to evoke astonishment about their relationship with IP and demonstrate just how much the IP system has given us.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.