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Intellectual Property  and the Ownership of Ideas:
Thomas Jefferson on Ideas


 
 
Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813, 
    It has been pretended by some, (and in England especially,) that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But while it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all, it would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors. It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. 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 any body. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until wecopied 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.
 "This gets to the heart of Jefferson's philosophy of life: that genius exists to amerliorate the conditions of humankind, that eveyone, not just social elites, should share in the fruits of life, that it is the diffusion not the hoarding of good ideas that brings about human happiness, and that government exists to serve the commonwealth rather than the individual.  In Jefferson's ideal world there can be no patents, copyrights, and trademarks.  What Daniel Boorstin has called the discoverers are all philanthropists." 
    --  from Thomas Jefferson: The Man of Light by Clay S. Jenkinson 
  
Thomas Jefferson redesigned the plow and released his idea (design) into the public domain asking no compensation for his ingenuity.  I find it a personal challenge to create something and not try to protect my "intellectual property."  But I try to remind myself, that society will benefit more as a whole from my ideas, than I will as an individual.  Ergo, the greater good comes from me not hoarding my knowledge, but instead making it accessible to others.  Which in some small way is why I have this website. 
    -- Scott Toste 
 
 


 
 
 
 
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