Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XII.: Objection Twelfth. - The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas
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SECTION XII.: Objection Twelfth. - Lysander Spooner, The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas 
The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1855).
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It is said that a man, by giving his ideas to others, does not thereby part with them himself, nor lose the use of them, as in the case of material property; that he only adds to other men’s wealth, without diminishing his own; that his giving knowledge to other men is only lighting their candles by his, thereby giving them the benefit of light, without any loss of light to himself; and that therefore he should not be allowed any exclusive property in his ideas, nor any right to demand a price for that, which it is no loss to him to give to others.
This objection is really the same as the next preceding one; and is only stated in a different form. The answers given to that objection, will apply with equal force to this.
The fallacy of both objections consist, primarily, in this—that they deny the fundamental principle, on which all rights of property are founded, namely, that labor and production give, to the laborer and producer, a right of exclusive property in, and of exclusive and absolute dominion over, the acquisitions and products of his labor.
The fallacy of both objections consists, secondarily, in this—that they deny to the laborer the right and power of obtaining any compensation for his labor, other than such as he may chance to obtain, from his own personal possession and use of the commodities, which he produces or acquires by his labor. They assert the right of all other men to use those commodities, without his consent, and without making him any compensation—provided only that they can do it without coming in personal collision with him. They thus deny that he has any right to forbid other men to use the commodities he has produced, or to demand pay of them for such use. They thus virtually deny his right to sell or rent the products of his labor, or to obtain in exchange for them such other commodities as he desires. They assert that, after a man has himself incurred the whole labor and expense of producing a commodity—a commodity that is capable of accommodating others, as well as himself; and that will be of as much, perhaps more, value, for use, to others, than to himself—he is bound to give them as free use of it, as he has himself, without requiring them to bear any part of the burden, or compensate him for any portion of the labor and expense, incurred by him in producing it. They thus virtually assert that labor, once performed, is no longer entitled to be rewarded, however beneficial it may be to others than the laborer; that commodities, once produced, are no longer entitled to be paid for, by those who use them, (other than the producers,) however valuable they may really be to them; that a man, therefore, has no such right of property in, nor of control over, the products of his labor, as will enable him to forbid other men to use them, or to demand pay of other men, for them, or for the use of them; that all men, consequently, have a perfect right to seize, and appropriate to their own use, the products of each other’s labor, without the consent of the producers, and without making any compensation, provided only that they do it without coming in personal collision with the producers; that if a man have produced enough of any particular commodity, (as wheat, for example,) to supply the world, he can rightfully control only so much of it, as he needs for his own consumption, and can maintain his actual possession of; that he can withhold the surplus from no one, with a view to getting an equivalent for it; that every man’s surplus, of any particular commodity, is not his property, to be exchanged for the surplus commodities of other men, by voluntary contract, but is rightfully free to be seized, by any one, to the extent of his particular needs for his own consumption; consequently that the exchanges, which take place among men, of their respective surpluses of the different commodities they severally produce, all proceed upon false notions of men’s separate rights of property in the products of their separate labor, and upon a false denial of the right of all men to participate equally with each man in the products of his particular labor; that men have no right to produce any thing for sale, or rent, but only to consume; and that if any one man be so foolish as to produce more, of any specific commodity, than he himself can use—as for example, more food than he himself can eat, more clothes than he himself can wear, more houses than he himself can live in, more books than he himself can read, and so on to the end of the catalogue—such folly is his own, committed with his eyes open, and he has no right to complain if all such surpluses be taken from him, against his will, and without compensation, by those who can consume them; that it is not the labor of producing commodities, but the will and power to consume them, that gives the right of property in, and dominion over, them; that the right of property, therefore, depends, not upon production, but upon men’s appetites, desires, wants, and capacities for consumption; and consequently that all men have equal rights to every thing they desire for consumption, whoever may have been its producer—provided only they can seize upon it without committing an actual trespass upon the body of such producer.
This is clearly the true meaning of the objections; because the same principle would apply as well to a surplus of food, clothing, or any other commodity, as to a surplus of ideas, or—what is the same thing—to the surplus capacity of a single idea, beyond the personal use of the producer—by which I mean the capacity of a single idea to be used by other persons simultaneously with the producer, without collision with him. The capacity of a single idea to supply a large number of persons at once without collision, is, in principle, precisely like the capacity of a large quantity of food to supply a large number of persons at once, without collision. In the case of the food, as in the case of the idea, there is more than one can use, and is enough for all; and that is the reason given, why the idea should not be monopolized by the producer, but be made free to all who can use it advantageously for themselves. If this argument be good, in the case of the idea, it is equally good in the case of the food; for there is more of that than the producer can consume, and therefore the surplus should be free to others. The argument is the same, in one case as in the other; and if it be good in one case, it is good also in the other.
The capacity of an idea to be used by many persons at once, is also the same, in principle, as the capacity of a road, a canal, a steamboat, a theatre, or a church, to be used by many persons at once. And the producer or proprietor of the idea, has as clear a right to demand pay from all who use his idea, simultaneously with himself and with each other, as the producer or proprietor of a road, a canal, a steamboat, a theatre, or a church, has, to demand pay of all who use one of those commodities, simultaneously with himself and with each other. How absurd it would be to deny the right of the proprietors of these last named commodities, to demand pay of the thousand users of them, on the grounds that they all used them simultaneously! that there was room for all! that the users did not come in collision with each other! that the commodities were susceptible of being used by a thousand or more at a time! and that the use of them, by others, did not prevent the proprietors from using them also at the same time!
Is a passage on a steamboat of no value to a man, if there be other men on board? Is it not just as legitimate a subject for compensation, when he enjoys it simultaneously with others, as when he enjoys it alone? Are not the performances in a theatre, a church, or a concert room, just as legitimate subjects for compensation, by each person who enjoys them, though they be enjoyed simultaneously by a thousand others beside himself, as they would be if enjoyed by himself alone? Certainly they are. And on the same principle, the use of an idea, which may be used by the whole world at once, without collision with each other, is just as legitimate a subject for compensation to the producer, as though the idea were capable of being used by but one person at a time.
But further. Why is it claimed that a man is bound, in the case of an idea, any more than in any other case, to give a product of his labor to others, without requiring them either to compensate him for his labor in producing it, or pay him any equivalent for its value to them? He has produced, at his own cost, a commodity, which can be used by others, as well as by himself; and the use of which, by others, will bring as much wealth to them, as his own use of it will bring to himself. Why has he no right, in this case, as in all others, to say to other men, you shall not use, for your profit, a commodity produced by my labor, unless you will pay me my price for it, or—what is the same thing—for my labor in producing it? Can any rational answer be given to such a question as that? What claim have they upon a product of his labor, that they should seize it without paying for it? Is it theirs? If so, by what right, when they did not produce it? and have never bought it? and the producer has never freely given it to them? Self-evidently it can be theirs by no right whatever.
On the principle of these objections, Fulton could get no compensation for his labor and expense, in inventing the steamengine, other than such as he might derive from actually operating one of his own engines, in competition with all other persons, who might choose also to operate them. If he did not choose himself to operate an engine for a living, the world would get the whole benefit of his invention for nothing, and he go wholly unrewarded for his labor in producing it. On the same principle, Morse could get no pay for the labor and expense incurred by him in inventing the telegraph, other than such as he could obtain by himself operating a telegraph, in competition with all other persons who should choose to do the like. If he did not choose to operate a telegraph for a living, or could not make a living by so doing, the world would get the whole benefit of his invention for nothing, and he go wholly unrewarded for his labor in producing it. On the same principle, a man, who should build, at his own cost, a road, or a canal, would have no right to forbid others to pass over it, nor to demand pay of them for passing over it; and could consequently get no pay for his labor in constructing it, other than such as he could obtain by simply passing over it himself. If he did not wish to pass over it, he would wholly lose his labor in constructing it; and the world would get the whole benefit of it for nothing. On the same principle too, if a man should build and run, at his own charge, a steamboat, large enough to carry a thousand passengers beside himself, he could neither forbid the thousand to come on board, nor demand pay of them for their passage. He could get no pay for his outlay, in building and running the boat, otherwise than by simply taking a passage on board of it himself. If this should not be an adequate compensation, he would have to submit to the loss, while the other thousand passengers would enjoy a free passage, on his boat, at his cost, and without his consent, simply because the boat was large enough to carry him and them too, and because their passage on it did not prevent him from taking passage on it also, simultaneously with themselves!
But it is said that giving knowledge to a man, is simply lighting his candle by ours; whereby we give him the benefit of light, without any loss of light to ourselves. And because we are not in the habit of demanding pay, for so momentary a labor, or so trivial a service, as that of simply lighting a man’s candle, it is inferred that we have no right to demand pay of a man, for our intellectual light, to be used as an instrumentality in labor, though it be such, that he will derive great pecuniary profit from it.
Admitting, for the sake of the argument, that the cases are analogous, the illustration wholly fails to prove what is designed to be proved by it; because, legally speaking, we have as perfect a right to the absolute control of our candles, as of any other property whatever, and as perfect a right to refuse to light another man’s candle, as to refuse to feed or clothe his body. We have also as perfect a right to forbid him to light his candle by ours, or in any way to use our light, as we have to forbid him to use our horse, or our house. And the only reason we do not, in practice, demand a price for lighting a man’s candle, is, that the lighting of a single candle is so slight a labor, and is so easily done by any body, and every body, that it will command no price in the market; since every man would sooner light his own candle, than pay even the smallest sum to another for doing it. But whenever the number of candles to be lighted is so large, as to enable the service to command a price in the market, men as habitually demand pay for lighting candles, as for any other service of the same market value. For example, those who light the lamps, in the streets of cities, in churches, theatres, and other large buildings, as uniformly demand pay for so doing, as for any other service done by one man for another. And no lawyer was ever yet astute enough to discover that such lamplighters were entitled to no pay, either for the reason that they parted with none of their own light, or for the reason that they enjoyed, in common with others, the light given forth by the candles they lighted.
We do not now demand pay for lighting a single candle, simply because the service is too trivial to command a price worth demanding. But if the production of a light, in the first instance, were—like the invention of a valuable idea—a work of great labor and difficulty, such as few persons could accomplish, and those few only by a great expenditure of money, time, and study, the producers of a light would then demand pay for lighting even a single candle by it, the same as they now do for the use of an idea by a single individual. And it would be no argument against their right to do so, to say, that they part with no light themselves; that they have as much light left as they had before, or as they can use in their own business, &c., &c. The answer would be, that the light was the product of their labor, and as such was rightfully their exclusive property, and subject to their exclusive control; that therefore no one had a right to use it without their consent; that they had as good right to produce a light, with a view to sell it to others, or to light other men’s candles by it for pay, as to produce it for their own use in labor; that if they were to give the benefits of their light to others gratuitously, or if others could avail themselves of it, without making compensation, the producers would get no adequate compensation for the labor of producing it; that the light was valuable to others, as well as to the producers, and therefore others, if they wished to use the light, could afford, and should be required, to bear a part of the cost of producing it; and that if they refused to bear any part of the cost of the light, they ought not to participate in the benefits of it.
But the case of lighting another man’s candle by ours, is not strictly analogous to the case of our furnishing him a valuable idea, for his permanent use and profit. There is indeed a sort of analogy, between giving a man light for his eyes, and light for his mind; especially if he use both kinds of light in his labor. But the important difference between lighting a candle, and furnishing an idea, is this. When we simply light a man’s candle for him, we do not supply him, at our own cost, with a permanent light for use. We only ignite certain combustible materials of his own; and from them alone he derives the permanent light, which he uses in labor. It is therefore only from the combustion of his own property, that he obtains that permanent light, which alone will suffice for his uses. All the service, therefore, which we render him, is the exceedingly trivial one of simply igniting those materials by a momentary contact with our flame. We supply none of the materials themselves, from the combustion of which his permanent and useful light is derived. But in the case of the idea, we do furnish him with the permanent light itself, by the aid of which alone he performs his labor. We do not, as in the other case, simply ignite his combustible materials. We furnish the permanent light, and the whole light, at our own sole cost.
Now the simple ignition of his combustible materials, as in the case of the candle, is too trivial a service to be worth demanding pay for it; and too trivial also to command a price, if it were demanded. But the furnishing him a perpetual light, as in the case of the idea, is a service sufficiently important to be worth demanding a price for it; and also sufficiently important to command a price in the market. And this is the difference, or at least one of the differences, between the two cases.
To make the case of the material light analogous to that of the intellectual light, it would be necessary that we produce, at our own cost, a permanent material light, such as will be of practical utility in labor. Having done this, a stranger, who had no share in the production of the light, claims the right to come into ourlight, and to use it for the purposes of his labor, without our consent, against our will, and without making us any compensation. We deny his right to do so; we tell him the light is our property, the product of our labor; that, as such, we have a right to control it, and its use; that we produced it with a view to sell so much of it as we did not wish to use; and that we will permit him to use it only on his paying us such a price as we see fit to demand. But he replies, that within the sphere of our light, there is room, which we do not occupy, and where the light goes to waste; that his occupying this vacant space, and using this waste light, will not interfere with the light we are using; that the light will be just as strong, where we are at work, as it was before; that he denies our right to demand pay for the use of our surplus light; and that therefore he will use it, and pay us nothing for it.
Which party here has the law on his side, the producers of the light, or the intruder? Certainly there can be no doubt that the light is the property of the producers, and that no one can claim the right to use it, for the purposes of his labor, without their consent. And the principle is the same in the case of the intellectual light.
To make the analogy still closer, between the cases of the material and the intellectual light, and especially to make the wrong of the intruder more palpable, we must suppose that we have produced a peculiar material light; and that this peculiar light is indispensable for the manufacture of a peculiar commodity, that is of value in the market. We, being the sole producers and possessors of this peculiar light, enjoy a monopoly of the manufacture and sale of the peculiar commodities manufactured by the aid of it. The intruder now claims the right, with out our consent, to come into our light, and use it for the manufacture of the same kind of commodities, which we are manufacturing, and which can be manufactured only by our light; and then to offer those commodities in the market in competition with ours. He thus claims, not only to use our light, against our will, and without making us any compensation, but also to use it for a purpose which is prejudicial to us, by reducing the market value of the commodities, which we ourselves manufacture by it. He thus does us a double wrong; for he not only uses, without our consent, and without making us any compensation, the light which we alone have produced; but he also reduces the practical value of the light to us, for our own uses, by selling, in competition with ours, the commodities he manufactures by its aid.
Is there no injustice, no intrusion, no usurpation, in such conduct as this? Most clearly there is. If, I being an innholder, a stranger were to come into my house, seize upon my stores of provisions, cook them by my fire, and then sell them to my customers, in competition with those which I have provided for them, the intrusion, usurpation, injustice, and robbery would be no more flagrant than in the case supposed. Yet neither of these cases is any more than a parallel to that of a man, who, without my consent, uses my invention, my intellectual light, and manufactures commodities by it, which he otherwise could not manufacture, and then sells them in competition with mine.
Finally. If the doctrine be true, that a man should have no pay for imparting knowledge to others, because he retains the same knowledge himself, then a lawyer should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his client, to a jury, or to a judge; a physician should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his patient, or to his patient’s nurse; a preacher should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his congregation; a lecturer should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his audience; a teacher should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his scholars; a master should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his apprentice; a legislator should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts to his fellow legislators, or to the country, by his speeches; a judge should have no pay for the knowledge he imparts by his judicial opinions or decisions; authors and editors should have no pay for the knowledge they impart by their writings; and so on indefinitely.
By the same principle too, a musician should charge nothing for his music, because he loses none of it himself. He hears it all, and enjoys it all, the same as if no one else were hearing it, or enjoying it. A painter should have no pay for a view of his picture, because he does not thereby lose the view of it himself. A sculptor should have no pay for exhibiting a statue, because he does not thereby lose the sight of it himself. A soldier should have no pay for achieving the liberties of his country, because he enjoys all those liberties himself, and none the less because his fellow countrymen, who stayed at home while he was fighting, enjoy them too. Such are some of the absurdities to which the doctrine leads.
The argument on this point might be extended still farther. But I apprehend it has already been extended farther than was really necessary. The objections have no soundness in them; yet they have probably as much plausibility as any of the objections that were ever brought against one’s right of property in his ideas. And this is the reason I have felt it excusable to expend so many words upon them.