The Emergence of Trademarks Throughout History

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trade·mark noun -ˌmärk

1 : a device (as a word) pointing distinctly to the origin or ownership of merchandise to which it is applied and legally reserved to the exclusive use of the owner as maker or seller

While the legal guidelines and implications of trademarks are fairly well documented in history, the basic idea of trademarks cannot be traced back to any single point in time, it is something that has grown and developed for as long as civilization, if not longer.

Merchant's Mark (1530)
Merchant’s Mark (1530)

The one condition that had to exist for the emergence of trademarks was that of commercial goods. As goods were produced and exchanged for money, competition and quality became much more prominent and important than in earlier barter systems.

Many artifacts from Greek and Roman ruins have displayed what are known as potters marks, which were used in those time to identify who (or where) the pot came from, and craftsmen of all kinds would mark their created goods. While these early markings likely bore no legal implications like our trademarks today, they were the essential first step to the trademark law of our time.

Some marks also arose to prove ownership of goods, rather than just their source. “Merchants marks” emerged in the 10th century and have been used ever since. Just as a modern day rancher may brand his animals, merchants marked their goods so that, if they were looted by pirates for example, they could prove their ownership and reclaim them.

Because of the competitive nature that led to these marks, a certain level of complexity was essential to ensure a unique symbol. There were, of course, issues and disagreement, and while some trademark cases had been brought around the world prior to 1803, it wasn’t until that year that France passed the “Factory, Manufacture and Workplace Act” an early (and the first) predecessor to modern trademark law, which made it illegal to pass someone else’s mark as one’s own.

Since then, countries all over the world have created, updated, and adopted regulations and practices to track and control trademarks. The United States passed its first federal law protecting trademarks in 1870, but it was not the last – even today there are still changes to the laws in reaction to our current world.

The advent of television had a massive effect on trademarks, as the medium allowed for innumerable products to reach users in their home. As television spread in the 1950s, the amount of trademark applications to the Patent Office skyrocketed.

nike-trademark
Just a simple line, yet, no mistaking its owner.

Today, the biggest challenge facing the control of trademarks is the internet. The global nature of the internet with its many users has made the transfer of information (and therefore infringement) incredibly easy and fast and created a single, global market which can lead to conflicting claims on marks.

Eric Palmer is a writer and designer in Denver, Colorado. He blogs occasionally for Brian Lefort Esq., IP patent attorney at LefortIPLaw.com