This paper aims at offering a reconstruction of the salient features of the most important formal institution introduced by European states in the Early Modern Period with the aim of recognizing and protecting the intellectual property of the inventors. Such institutions went under different names – ‘Privilegio’ in Venice, ‘Patent’ in England, ‘Privilège’ in France, ‘Cedula de privilegio de invençion’ in Spain – and, in general, took the form of the concession of a special prerogative to the inventor by the sovereign or the republic, by virtue of which he could exploit, in economic terms, his own invention through holding a monopoly. The article starts with the origins of the privileges for invention, of which the first examples are to be found in the Middle Ages, but whose official ‘genesis’ is commonly identified with the Venetian law of 1474. The fundamental characteristics of the Venetian system, which was later imitated by other European states, are analysed. In the following section, the adoption of this model by those other states – Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands – is illustrated. In fact, the majority of these would make legislation on intellectual property an instrument of mercantilist policy, under the same conditions as prevailed in Venice. Further, we will examine some of the opportunities that the diffusion of these measures offered to those involved and the way in which they – as craftsmen, merchants, and speculators – took advantage of the business of privileges. Finally, before concluding, some thoughts on the changes made in the policy of privileges given the transformations that took place in the course of the eighteenth century, in order to understand the ‘adaptive’ capacity of these institutions.