Guest Blogger: “ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe”

Thomas Jefferson welcomes Guest Blogger Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the third President of the United States (1801–1809), the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and one of the most influential Founding Fathers for his promotion of the ideals of republicanism in the United States.

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 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.

Considering the exclusive right to invention as given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society, I know well the difficulty of drawing a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not. As a member of the patent board for several years, while the law authorized a board to grant or refuse patents, I saw with what slow progress a system of general rules could be matured.

Originally written 13 Aug. 1813
Re-blogged from The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, Document 12

7 Comments on "Guest Blogger: “ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe”"

  1. And I love it. So many copyright maximists talk about how America’s founders believed in IP, despite the fact that Jefferson asserted ideas are not property. (and James Madison called copyright/patents evil monopolies)

    1. I thank you for your kind words, Anonymous.

      It is perplexing how little debated are these monopolies today.  When first we contemplated it, copyright had been but recently invented by the British, its connexion to the means by which printers distribute their wares so clear as to require no remark, and coloured by the memory of the machinations of the Company of Stationers in London, which were then less than a century distant in time.

      That this temporary monopoly, which we strained to justify and intended to be the subject of watchful vigilance on the part of those charged with its enforcement, should now be seen as a natural and permanent right of property (extending by some judges’ interpretation even into the common law), is a matter of some distress to me.  Far better that such a monopoly should be abolished, with whatever consequences may come, than that it lie as an ever-present temptation to those who seek benefit by its extension, and as an entrapment to those who favor anything that is called “property” whether it truly be so or not.

      With these observations, please accept the assurance of my respect,

      Thos. Jefferson

  2. The great thing about Jefferson’s opposition to the copyrighting of ideas is that his opposition is embodied in Title 17 USC, the USA’s copyright laws:  you cannot copyright ideas and I cannot copyright ideas and no one is allowed to copyright ideas.  Jefferson’s opposition to copyrighting ideas is the law of the land in the USA.  Maybe, though, this site is more concerned about how copyright is used to protect and monopolize the copying of actual works.

    1. Jefforson was writing against the notion of intellectual property, not copyright or patents. Those laws are actually regulatory in nature and are meant to further progress.

  3. If you actually read the above, you’d see he was opposed to the patenting of inventions.

    And if you actually read the constitution, you’d see the copyright clause specifies limited times, which no longer apply due to continual, retroactive term extensions and is certainly not the “law of the land.”

    Finally, if you read any blog, anywhere, you’d see that using an “Anonymous” handle when posting uninformed arguments without actually reading the article first, weakens any legitimate points you may be trying to make.



    I’m the half-sister of Mr. Jefferson’s wife.

    Due to a certain ‘peculiar institution’ which was popular at the time, combined with the fact that a few of my ancestors had rather high levels of melanin in their pigmentation, Mr. Jefferson was able to legally claim me (and many other human beings) as his personal property.

    Over the course of four decades, he impregnated me six times, and those children all became his personal property as well. (“Copying is not theft. Stealing a thing leaves one less left, Copying it makes one thing more; that’s what copying’s for.”)  

    As he made no provisions for my freedom in his Last Will and Testament, I was only able to leave his plantation because of his daughter’s personal decision to liberate me, following her father’s death.

    I felt that since this forum appears to have so much interest in Mr. Jefferson’s attitudes towards property rights, they would certainly appreciate further examples of such.

    Thank you.