Remember, remember, the 5th of November: gunpowder, treason and plot.
All over Britain, there have been bonfires and fireworks this weekend, ostensibly to celebrate the foiling of the dastardly plot by Guy Fawkes and his colleagues to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. They had planned to do this by igniting barrels of gunpowder that they had placed in a cellar beneath Parliament. Guy Fawkes was in charge of the gunpowder.
Sometimes overlooked in this story is the question of patent infringement. The production of gunpowder was then a government monopoly and therefore the subject of letters patent. (This was, of course, before the reform to patent law in the Statute of Monopolies in 1624, but in any case that statute would allow the government monopoly over gunpowder to continue on the grounds of national security.)
So where did Guy Fawkes get the gunpowder from? Assuming that he didn’t obtain it from an official source, one theory is that he imported it from the Netherlands. Another theory is that there were unofficial manufacturers in England – one could think of them as an early form of generics company.
It seems that this question was not pursued in the official investigation of the Gunpowder Plot, perhaps because of the embarrassment that any answer might cause. After all, the important point was that the conspiracy had been foiled.
IP Draughts is intrigued by the thought that there might have been a civil damages claim against the suppliers or importers of the gunpowder. Do any patent historians among our readers know what the remedies were for patent infringement in 1605? Guy Fawkes and seven of his co-conspirators were hanged, emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and cut into quarters. We imagine that the civil remedies may have been less severe.