The Patent Genre: Between Stability and Change

  • Fiorella Foscarini


This article examines patents as typified communicative practices enacted within the articulated and rigid boundaries of legal systems. By applying concepts from rhetorical genre studies, the article identifies the regularities of textual features and social intentions characterizing the patent genre and shows how patents are compulsorily constructed, evaluated, and contested within highly structured socio-cultural contexts. Despite their conservative nature, both patents and the rules surrounding them are the outcome of continuous negotiations of meanings and motives among those participating in them (e.g., inventors, patent examiners, and legislators) and depend on this participation. Through a genre analysis of the system of patents granted to the University of Toronto in the 1920s for its method for producing insulin and the medical substance itself, the article discusses the changes that Toronto’s Insulin Committee was able to make to the patent genre and to a broader system of interrelated genres. This case study confirms that genre innovation and transformation are indeed possible, even in the most formal and stable environments. It also demonstrates that in order to appreciate the strategic goals and rhetorical actions performed by genres, we have to situate them within the specific socio-historical circumstances in which they were enacted.


Cet article étudie les brevets comme méthode de communication caractérisée ayant lieu à l’intérieur des limites structurées et rigides de systèmes juridiques. En appliquant les concepts issus de la théorie littéraire des genres, cet article identifie les constantes des caractéristiques textuelles et des intentions sociales qui caractérisent le genre du brevet et montre comment les brevets sont obligatoirement élaborés, évalués et contestés dans des contextes socio-culturels hautement structurés. Malgré leur nature conservatrice, tant les brevets que les règles qui les entourent sont le fruit de constantes négociations de signification et d’intentions entre ceux qui y participent (par ex. les inventeurs, les examinateurs de brevets et les législateurs) et dépendent de cette participation. Par l’analyse du genre du système de brevets émis à l’Université de Toronto dans les années 1920 pour sa méthode de production d’insuline et pour cette substance médicale elle-même, cet article aborde les changements que le Toronto’s Insulin Committee a pu apporter aux brevets comme genre et à un système plus large de genres interreliés. Cette étude de cas confirme que l’innovation de genre et la transformation sont en effet possibles, même dans les environnements les plus stables et les plus formels. Elle démontre également que, afin d’apprécier les objectifs stratégiques et les actions rhétoriques posées par les genres, nous devons les replacer dans le contexte socio-historique spécifique au sein duquel ils ont pris forme.

Author Biography

Fiorella Foscarini

Fiorella Foscarini is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. She holds a PhD in archival studies from the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. Before joining academia in 2010, she worked for a decade as Senior Archivist for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main, Germany; prior to that, she was Head of the Records Office and Intermediate Archives at the Province of Bologna, Italy. In 2014–16, she taught in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In her teaching and research, Fiorella uses diplomatics, rhetorical genre studies, and information culture concepts to explore issues related to the creation, management, and use of records in organizational contexts. She currently serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Records Management Journal and as Senior Associate Editor for Archivaria.

How to Cite
Foscarini, Fiorella. 2019. “The Patent Genre: Between Stability and Change”. Archivaria 87 (May), 36-67.
Studies in Documents