About the project

Rethinking Patent Cultures is an AHRC funded project, hosted by the Centre for History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds. The project co-Investigators are Professor Graeme GoodayDr. Claire Jones, and Dr. James Stark.  The overall aim is to draw together an international group of scholars to map the international commonalities and heterogeneity of patenting cultures before ‘intellectual property’ became the dominant mode of talking about patents.  The project will host three workshops (on global patent cultures, medicine & healthcare, disability & prostheses), with three accompanying public lectures.

The project will develop a comparative history of patent law and practices before the notion of ‘intellectual property’ came to dominate both commerce and scholarship.  It will look comparatively at the patenting laws, cultures and experiences of nations, industries and communities up to the founding of the World Intellectual Property Office in 1967.  Three major questions arise from this, not previously studied in an internationally comparative manner:

  1. First of all, why and when did industrializing countries adopt particular patenting systems, and how did they manage the differences between them?
  2. Secondly, why were there such significant and long-running disagreements between patenting systems about what was legitimately patentable matter, especially in biomedicine? 
  3. Thirdly, how far did marginalized groups, especially the ‘disabled’, use patents to protect their inventive identity against challenges from a growing patent-based capitalism?

 No individual scholar can take on such broad questions single-handedly, to explain for the first time how patenting worked as a complex moulding force differentially in global commerce generally conceived, and also within international and national medical and disability cultures. To study such rich under-examined terrain and complex issues, this project will draw together a substantial body of international scholars from various sub-branches of history, as well as law and economics to develop a coherent and sustained interdisciplinary discussion in conjunction with external bodies in law, medicine, disability and patenting. This will produce a new global historical framework that avoids presuming natural hegemony for any country or patent system.

This project will extend the activities of two recent AHRC projects hosted by Leeds. The first was Owning & Disowning Invention (2007-10), http://owninganddisowninginvention.org/, which produced the transnational study (Arapostathis & Gooday 2013) and a final conference concluding with a call to develop geographical insights on the diversity of patent cultures. The second was the Knowledge Transfer project Patently Innovative (2011-12) with the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, which revealed how communicating the patented elements of medical and prosthetics collections to museum visitors needed a more nuanced approach than feasible within conventional frameworks of patents as ‘intellectual property’.