Thomas Jefferson on Patents
Chris Dixon has posted to his blog an except from a letter by Thomas Jefferson on patents. It really strikes a chord with me in this time of so many patent infringement legal cases in the tech world. Here’s the excerpt as Chris posted:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.” Thomas Jefferson
I’m not posting this (or reposting) because I feel that all patents are wrong, but I do feel that there is such abuse that the system needs to be reworked. I’m not a fan of software patents because I believe they stifle innovation, as well as laying claim to usage of “language” (as in computer languages) and how a user communicates or interacts with information.
In fact, I do support patents in the context of tangible products (though I abhor patent trolls). If an inventor, whether an individual or a corporation, develops an idea and wishes to earn money from the effort and creativity, I’m all for it and feel s/he should be protected from those who would simply copy the product and not compensate the originator. A lot of work and expense goes into developing prototypes and finished products. Of course, if a creative inventor takes pleasure from sharing his or her inventions with others without the need to profit, that's wonderful.
Thomas Jefferson was the inventor of many things, which he freely shared with everyone. A commenter on Chris' post, Patrick Lee, reminds us the Thomas Jefferson died at age 83, deeply in debt, and had he patented some of his inventions he might have been financially better off for it. He could have joined with others to create businesses which grew from his ideas as well. Still, his humble generosity is something to appreciate I think.
Here' the letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson. Kudos to Chris for finding this and posting it.
[via: Chris Dixon]