Quite simply, intellectual property (IP) is the most important subject that most people know nothing about. Which is why, a few years ago, we began working on a book that eventually became A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Initially, we wanted just to do a simple history of the IP system. But when we sat down to try to tell the story of the way that IP has evolved, we were confronted with a range of problems: IP itself is intangible, the laws creating it are arcane and complex, and the area is often seen as difficult to understand and interpret. And yet, the IP system is one of the most important structuring systems in modern society. It underpins vast industries, such as aerospace, architecture, pharmaceuticals, media and entertainment. It is the locus of concerns about counterfeiting and piracy, it grounds arguments about trade, export and competition, and is at the core of discussions over knowledge-based economies and policies relating to creativity and innovation.
We wanted to convey to everyday readers and specialists alike just why IP matters so much, and why it’s so interesting. So, to tell a vibrant and compelling history of IP, we turned to the objects that embody IP and which wouldn’t exist without IP’s intervention. This idea came from the field of material culture, a discipline of anthropology and sociology that recognizes that one of the best ways to understand a society is to look at the objects it produces. A Grecian urn or a Roman bath house tell us an enormous amount about the way that people lived, what mattered to them, and how their cultures developed.
… the IP system is one of the most important structuring systems in modern society.
So, too, with IP objects. The Coca-Cola bottle and brand exist because of the way that IP made them. The meaning and image of the Barbie doll is as distinct and clear as the sound of a struck bell because of the way that Mattel was able to control representations of the doll via its IP rights. In turn, the value in these objects changed the IP system, as the companies controlling them had a hand in influencing the developments of law.
These objects demonstrate the importance of the IP system. They invite questions about various aspects of its multifaceted development. They show us how IP has evolved and worked in human history and illustrate its influence on a range of historical events and movements. And, perhaps most importantly, they...