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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

So The Legal Genealogist had an absolute ball doing that webinar Tuesday for the Friends of the National Archives-Southeast Region on patents, and almost immediately had a question by email.

“Patents for inventors?” the reader asked. “I thought patents were issued for land.”

Now I thought briefly about being a little snarky… because I did answer that question in the webinar. But I do realize not everyone can be online in the middle of a workday afternoon, and it really is annoying that one seemingly simple six-letter word could be used in two such seemingly different ways.

Truth is, the uses aren’t really all that different.

Here’s the deal.

A patent, by definition, is a “grant of some privilege, property, or authority, made by the government or sovereign of a country to one or more individuals.”1


Now think about that for a minute.

I’m the King.2 I own all the land in this province or colony or territory. And I give you some. Or sell it to you. Or let you have it in return for military service or some other good deed.

What I’ve just accomplished is a “grant of some … property,… made by the … sovereign of a country to one or more individuals,” right?

In other words, a patent.

That’s why a lot of land transfers, from the royal governments in colonial days (whether Dutch, French, Spanish or English), and from the federal or state governments after the United States became a country, were accomplished by means of patents.

But now let’s change the facts a little. Say I’m the federal government.3 And I give Eli Whitney the singular right to build, use and sell his cotton gin invention for a period of 14 years.4

What have I just accomplished there?

I’ve just accomplished a “grant of some privilege, … or authority, made by the government … of a country to one or more individuals.”

In other words, a patent.

And that’s why one word is used for both concepts: a patent for land; a patent for inventions.

Patently clear? Maybe.

Patently ridiculous, maybe too, but hey… nobody ever said the language of the law had to make sense.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 877, “patent.”
  2. Okay, okay, so I’m the Queen. Whatever.
  3. An appalling thought, given the state of affairs in Washington these days. But hey… stay with me, okay? It’s just a hypothetical.
  4. Eli Whitney, patent no. 72X (1794); Records of the Patent Office (Reconstructed Records) relating to “Name And Date” Patents, 1837-87; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office; Record Group 241, National Archives II, College Park, Md.
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