I remember reading a Noam Chomsky book where he stated that America simply stole British patented ideas, claiming that British laws did not apply to her. Chomsky's argument was that America is criticizing China for the same thing America did when it was industrialising. I was wondering if there is any truth to this. If so, could someone provide me with a link please.


The phrasing is a bit unfair, I think (and probably a misquote, as it turns out). The first important international patent agreement didn't exist until 1883, and the United States signed on 4 years later. Before that, all countries were free to discriminate against foreigners in patent applications. Even with that agreement, a person wanting patent protection in a member country had to file for it in that country. Thus the USA did still "ignore" British patents, just as the British ignored USA patents. There's nothing unique about the United States in this regard. It wasn't until 1970 that there was such thing as an International Patent

Now it may be true that the 1880's roughly coincides with the period of industrialization in the USA, but only at the very beginning of it. A person could argue that the USA joining the patent convention was a sign of its industrialization starting to, er, pick up steam. Before that, things were just not progressing on a scale where patents were an issue. In 1870 there were only about 100,000 US patents in place. By 1911 this had grown to over a million.

Now China is currently a signatory to both the agreements I mentioned above. As such their citizens, in theory at least, enjoy the benefits if they patent something.

Note that if you go back further in history, patents and copyrights were originally merely favors The King bestowed upon his favorites to help them prosper, regardless of who actually first invented/wrote the thing in question. In that environment, it would have been entirely appropriate for a patent or copyright to be ignored outside the issuing country. The general public having access to them on some kind of a merit basis is a relatively modern development.

It is possible that somebody is confusing the situation with Copyright, where the USA did have a bit of a piratical history.

  • 6
    Color me shocked. Chomsky randomly badmouthing USA by spinning things into the worst possible optics. Without having intellectual honesty to go live in a country more suitable to his views, like Cuba.
    – DVK
    Jun 4 '13 at 14:41
  • 2
    Patents still do not necessarily record who actually first invented/wrote the thing in question, eg: patents.stackexchange.com/questions/3884/…
    – James
    Jun 4 '13 at 16:52
  • Can we hear more about the copyright angle? Thanks for a great answer, anyway. Jun 4 '13 at 17:00
  • @FelixGoldberg, I certianly wouldn't mind, but it would be off topic for this question. I'll see if I can find a good link to get you started.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 4 '13 at 17:49
  • @James - True. In fact, it is quite within the US Congress' power to behave like the Kings of old and bestow a patent on some random person they happen to feel like financially supporting. Same with copyrights. It only has any relation to creation of the thing in question because Congress decided to write laws to that effect.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 4 '13 at 17:56

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