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How to patent a chemical? The instability of a new type of intellectual property (Switzerland, 1888–1907)

Nicolas Chachereau

Keywords: patents; history; Switzerland; chemical industry; product patents; process patents; patent scope

The extension of intellectual property, and the pressure exerted on developing countries through trade agreements, is not as recent as is often thought. This article examines such a historical case, when Switzerland revised its patent law in 1907, to extend patent protection to chemicals. This was largely due to the pressure exerted by the German government and to the lobbying of the country's chemical industry.

Examining closely the elaboration of the new patent law, the article reveals how unstable the category of patents on chemical inventions was. It did not simply cross a border, being exported from Germany to Switzerland. As Swiss politicians and industrialists discussed the new patent law, they referred to other countries, but they did not only copy, they also rejected some of their features. The reasons for this instability were not to be found only in the pressure and criticism exerted by Germany, or the willingness to protect the interests of the Swiss chemical industry. The Swiss law also differed because of real and legitimate concerns regarding the effects of patents on society and economy.

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