Patents, or at least some sort of protection from copying somebody else’s invention, go back to at least the Middle Ages. In the United States just after the Revolutionary War, intellectual property protection was written into the new constitution, and almost as soon as the ink had dried on that document, the 1790 Patent Act was passed. The law defined a U.S. patent as “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used.” It granted the applicant the “sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used” of his invention.
Initially, patent protections were not adopted by agriculture, except in the use of new farming tools. The idea of patenting seeds was not even considered. Until the very early 20th century, farmers did not purchase seeds; there was almost nobody to purchase them from!
Typically, a farmer kept seeds from previous harvests and reused them, or shared seeds with neighbors. They did get some government help, too. As farmers moved west to settle the new United States, the Patent Office and later, the Department of Agriculture, distributed seeds to farmers for free. Between 1890 and 1897, some 10 million packages of seeds were given out. While this practice helped create more predictable production, it did not foster innovation.