An inventor in the family? Use IP databases for genealogy

Much of this last week has been spent in a hotel off a motorway junction at an Intellectual Property Masterclass by the IPO. Why? Because although my passion is heritage, my day job also includes looking after a business library.

That’s not to say Intellectual Property isn’t relavent to heritage: it’s important for everyone that values their business, including archivists, historians and professional genealogists. However, that’s not what this post is really about (click on the IPO link above to get more information about IP if you’re interested in learning more – I’d recommend the IP Equip learning tool, and the Health Checks). 

Where am I going with this if not into the realms of IP for genealogists? Well, registers of patents, designs and trade marks essentially match a person, or their company, to an invention, a design or a logo/slogan etc. These are all things which can add fascinating glimpses into the lives of our forebears. The fourth most important section of IP is copyright – which is automatic, and not usually registered.

Take patents for instance. Patent law in the UK has been developing for centuries, with particular developments in the 1800s, alongside the industrial revolution. Espacenet is a free search engine which currently provides access to more than 90 million patents from more than 90 countries – and those go back to 1836.

Perhaps you already know of an inventor in the family, perhaps you have a One Name Study – in either case this is a useful database. It’s got names and dates, which is useful genealogically of course, but so much more. 

For example, a search under my name of ‘Walne’ returns seven submitted patents ranging from 1909 to 1998. The earliest, a British application, is entitled “Improvements in or connected with Harrows” with a patent claim and a drawing of this new, improved agricultural implement. (Be warned, patent claims can be mind boggling. As our tutors said – imagine a world without a table. Now try and describe a table in such a way that no one else can claim a monopoly, and in such a way that you have covered exactly what you want covered, to get the maximum benefit and for a lawyer to interpret it just as you do. Oh, and never use the word ‘table’!) Perhaps a harrow doesn’t sound very exciting, but it can suggest something about the inventor’s life and interests. Who knows what you’ll find when you give it a go…

Alternatively, there’s Patentscope although there you’re looking at patents filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty since 1978 only. This is operated by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) while Espacenet is operated by the European Patent Office.

There are similar search tools available for registered trademarks – many of you will already know that the first registered trademark in Britain belonged to Bass Brewery, following the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875. I’d recommend starting with the IPO’s own search tool (if you search by number and enter ‘1’ you’ll get the familiar ‘Bass & Co’s Pale Ale’). Once registered, trade marks can be renewed again and again, but expired ones also appear on the database. 

So there you have it, IP not only makes good business sense, but good genealogical sense.



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