In 1421, an Italian architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, designed a truly massive creation. Called ll Badalone, or “The Sea-Going Monster,” it was a
ship intended to haul a hundred tons of marble to Florence from Pisa, up the Arno River. It would take six years for the ship to actually be built, and it would sink on its very first voyage. Not a great success rate, and it sank—if you pardon the pun—a good deal of Brunelleschi’s fortunes.
What’s interesting, though, is that he was awarded a patent for the design; perhaps one of the very first patents in human history. Indeed, the patent had an interesting enforcement clause: that anyone who copied Brunelleschi’s work would have their own designs set on fire. The patent specifically identified Brunelleschi’s invention as “some machine or kind of ship, by means of which he thinks he can easily, at any time, bring in any merchandise and load on the river Arno and on any other river or water, for less money than usual.” Thus, anyone else who similarly decided to build a ship to try and deliver goods for less money than usual would quickly see their vessels set ablaze.
And you thought today’s patent trolls were bad.
Regrettably, even today, absurd design patents are still alive and well. Patents for the “slide to unlock” feature or rounded buttons of certain smartphones, for instance. Very basic, obvious things, which you wouldn’t expect to be eligible for a patent. Yet the system has allowed these patents to live.
At least nobody is allowed to set your smartphone on fire.