Was the French Patent System democratic ? France, 19th century
The influence of political and social institutions on economic development is a major question developed by institutional economics. Naturally, the relationship between patent system and economic performance has been explored by economists and historians. In her book published in 2005, B. Zorina Khan tended to show that this link was not uniform. By comparing Great-Britain, France and United States, she suggested that American economic performance was based on a « democratization of invention», which was manifested by its patent systems. Contrary to the American one, «the European systems reflected their origin in royal privilege and effectually limited access to a select class, which ultimately resulted consequences for their long run competitiveness.» ( B. Zorina Khan, The Democratization of Invention : Patents and Copyright in American Development, 1790-1920, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 29). This paper will defend a different point of view. It is impossible not to recognize that the French Revolution introduced a strong rupture into the French patent system. In a sense, the Revolution did invent the French patent system by basing it on a law, which resulted from natural right. For actors, this philosophical foundation had undoubtedly a democratic meaning. In fact, the inventive activity was seen as a way of social promotion, which should be allowed by the patent system. It is true that the cost of patent was a strong obstacle. But it has to be remembered that the law of 1844 decreased this price and contributed to a strong democratization of patent, even if poor inventors could not pay the annual tax. But an other point has to be taken into consideration. In fact, a perfectly democratic patent system should have meant an eternal and gratis one and such a system was quite impossible, since the patent system itself was strongly contested. At the beginning of 20th century, whereas European legislations, especially the German one, allowed a strong involvement of the administration through the preliminary examination, the French actors of the patent system did refuse such an intrusion and the French patent system continued to evolve under the lobbying of small inventors. In a sense, we could say that the democratic aspiration prevented the French patent system from adapting itself.
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