What are Letters Patent?

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  • Written By: John Markley
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 27 February 2020
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Letters patent are a type of formal legal document issued by governments to grant a legal right, privilege, or status to a person or other entity or group. Letters patent are issued openly, making whatever is being granted by the letter publicly visible. They are the opposite of letters close, which are given to the recipient sealed. They are usually issued in the name of the head of state, such as the president in the United States of America or the king or queen in the United Kingdom, rather than the legislature.

Letters patent are frequently used in relation to government offices. For example, they are granted by the president of the United States for offices appointed by the president, such as federal judges. They can also be used to create new offices, such as the letters patent issued by British monarchs establishing the office of governor-general for Commonwealth member nations such as Canada and Australia. Commissions, the documents recognizing a person as as a commissioned officer in a country's armed forces, are another example.


Letters patent can be used to grant various legal rights and privileges. Historically, they were often used to grant a person or group a monopoly on some area of economic activity, such as the sale of a particular commodity or trade with a specific region. A patent, as the word is used today to refer to a legal recognition of intellectual property in an invention that grants a temporary monopoly on the invention, derives its name from this. A letter of marque and reprisal author authorizes a private citizen to enter the territory of a foreign country and wage war against it as a privateer.

Letters patent can be also be used to grant titles and other honors. In the United Kingdom, for example, they are issued in the name of the sovereign when someone is elevated to the nobility or granted a coat of arms. Patents have also been used to grant rights or privileges to groups, such as giving a coat of arms to a city or recognizing a religious minority's right to practice its religion.

A land patent granted by a government recognizes a person's ownership of an area of land. In the British colonies in North America, for example, land was granted to colonists through land patents given by an official called the proprietor, who governed the colony in the name of the British crown. In the United States after independence, the federal government began issuing land patents granting public lands to private owners through donation, sale, or homesteading.


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