Intellectual property (IP) is important to the success of many businesses today, to say the least. Whether it’s copyrighted works that companies sell as products, patents for technology that make their business model possible, or trademarks that get their brand out there, there’s a lot of IP putting in the work. There have been many historical IP cases, in fact, because of how important they have become.

IP is a term that refers to the creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, and names used in commerce. In today’s world, protecting these creations has become increasingly important so that the owner of the IP is the only one profiting from it. 

However, IP laws have not always been as developed and comprehensive as they are today. There have been several historical cases that have significantly shaped the way we view and protect intellectual property today. Learn more about them from Emerson Thomson Bennett.

Historical Intellectual Property (IP) Cases You Should Know About

The Statute of Anne (1710)

The Statute of Anne is often referred to as the first copyright law in history, and it was enacted in Britain before the United States was even founded. 

Originally enacted by the British Parliament in 1710, this law was a response to the widespread piracy of books and literature at the time. Prior to this, authors had no legal protection for their works and could not prevent others from making and selling copies without their permission. 

The Statute of Anne changed that by granting authors a limited term of copyright protection, thus laying the foundation for modern copyright laws.

The Case of Donaldson v. Becket (1774)

The Case of Donaldson v. Becket was a landmark case in the development of copyright law. In this case, the House of Lords – a second chamber of the UK Parliament – ruled that copyright protection should be granted only for a limited time and not in perpetuity, as had been previously believed. 

This ruling established the concept of public domain, where works eventually become free for anyone to use and benefit from. This concept would carry over into U.S. law, where the idea of the public domain and temporary copyrights would also be inscribed into law.

The Patent Act of 1790

The United States Patent Act of 1790 is considered to be the first patent law in American history. It was heavily influenced by the British Statute of Monopolies, like many of the IP laws in the United States.

Rather than focus on copyrights and creative works, this law is all about inventors and their inventions. This law allowed inventors to obtain what was to be called a patent for their invention. This would give them exclusive rights to make, use, and sell their creation for a limited period of time. 

This laid the foundation for the modern patent laws that protect inventions today.

The Berne Convention (1886)

The Berne Convention is an international agreement that still sets the standard for copyright protection for many countries around the world. It was first adopted in 1886 and has been revised multiple times since then. Currently, the Berne Convention includes:

  • The United States
  • Germany
  • Switzerland
  • France
  • The United Kingdom
  • Sweden
  • Italy
  • Argentina
  • Netherlands
  • Spain
  • Belgium
  • Finland
  • Albania
  • Haiti
  • Andorra
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Algeria

The Copyright Term Extension Act – A.K.A. “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”

Also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the Copyright Term Extension Act – or the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” colloquially – was passed in 1998 in the U.S. The act effectively extended the duration of copyright protection for works still under copyright. The title “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” arose because the change in law directly benefited the Walt Disney Company, which famously wanted the law changed. It ended up protecting the Walt Disney Company’s copyright on its early Mickey Mouse projects that were set to enter the public domain. 

Instead of copyrights expiring 50 years after the death of the author, they were extended to 70 years. For works of corporate authorship, the protections were extended from 75 years after creation, or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. 

This act was met with significant controversy, with critics arguing it unfairly benefited corporations at the expense of the public domain. Many believed that creative works should be open for public use, similarly to patents, after a short amount of time. With the extension, the people who first experienced a creative work would be likely to be elderly or have since passed by the time it was in the public domain. 

This reaction has led to the Mickey Mouse Protection Act being considered an example of how historical IP cases have influenced the length and scope of copyright protection to this day.

Get Help With Your Intellectual Property Protections From Emerson Thomson Bennett

These are just a few of the historical cases that have shaped modern intellectual property law. From establishing copyright and patent protection to defining trademark infringement and setting international standards, these cases have had a lasting impact on how we view and protect intellectual property. 

If you’re looking to file for the proper intellectual property protection for your IP, you need to know these laws yourself because they are still relevant decades – and in some cases centuries – later. For legal help and guidance, contact the IP protection attorneys at Emerson Thomson Bennett today.



We provide complete intellectual property representation to business owners, inventors and artists in all matters related to the establishment and protection of domestic and international patents, trademarks and copyrights. Attorneys at our firm also serve as in-house IP counsel for companies whose needs do not call for a full-time internal position.


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