The European Patent Journey

Innovators lie at the very heart of the changes taking place in our societies

© Photo : Christian Kain

As the first industrial revolution gets underway in Europe at the end of the 18th century, innovation emerges as a driving force behind the economy and, more broadly, social and cultural developments. Making sure that inventors are fairly rewarded for their efforts seems an obvious choice. Beyond protecting their rights, patents are also seen as the best way of ensuring the long-term wellbeing, prosperity and security to which society aspires. So nations gradually adopt a broad range of industrial property laws between the end of the 18th century and the start of the 20th century. Although these laws differ, they are based on common fundamental principles. In the same way as minting money, control over the intellectual property system becomes an attribute of national sovereignty. 

Signed in 1883, the Paris Convention lays the foundations for the internationalisation of this system. From then on, patents and international relations are closely linked. Initially, this leads to co-operation, exchanges and trade. However, as political tensions mount, patents are used to compete and fight. The 20th century is marked by two world wars that leave Europe materially destroyed and morally weakened. In the face of tragedy, a handful of men are determined that patents, frequently associated with war, should once again become instruments of peace and understanding for Europeans. 

The exhibition The European Patent Journey is divided into five areas, four of which chart the history of the industrial property system, how it protects innovation in Europe and helps it to flourish. It also highlights the role played by Europeans – both past and present – in innovation and the most fundamental changes in our societies. The final area presents the buildings that have marked the EPO’s development and showcases its roots in a Europe that is facing up to the challenges of sustainable development. The EPO takes centre stage in this narrative, fifty years after the signing of the European Patent Convention that led to its creation. 

Put together by Pascal Griset, professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne, and a team of EPO specialists, this exhibition is aimed at both intellectual property experts and the general public. Between the memory of an institution and the history of a continent, it tells a story that is still largely unknown. Drawing on a wealth of data, images and detailed analyses, the exhibition will take you on a journey through time, offering insights into an institution whose origins go back further than you may think, and presenting the people who made this European success story possible. We hope that you come away from here with a deeper understanding of the key issues facing society and greater confidence to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.