Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION II.: Descent of Intellectual Property. - 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 II.: Descent of Intellectual Property. - 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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Descent of Intellectual Property.
There is the same reason, and as strong reason, why a man’s intellectual property should descend to his relatives, as there is why his material property should do so.
What is the ground, on which the law allows any man’s property to go, at his death, to his wife, children, or other relatives? This, and nothing else, viz.: the law presumes that he acquired it for them, and intended it for their benefit. In short, it presumes that it was his will that it should go to them, rather than to mankind at large. And this is a reasonable presumption, (in the absence of express evidence to the contrary,) because, during life, men usually labor for, and devote their property to the support and welfare of, their immediate families and relatives, in preference to strangers. And it is natural that, at death, they should wish their property still to be devoted to the same ends, for which they produced and employed it while living. This presumption is so natural and reasonable, so well grounded in the nature and experience of mankind at large, and withal so consistent with a man’s moral duties, that nothing is suffered to overcome it, in law, except undoubted evidence that a man expressed a different will, while living, and in the possession of his reason.
Although men sometimes will that, at their death, their property shall go to others than their nearest relatives, it is nevertheless nearly or quite an unheard of event, that a man should wish his property to go to mankind at large, in preference to his immediate friends. There is, therefore, no ground, in law, for such a presumption, in the absence of express evidence. And there is no more reason why a man’s intellectual property should go to the public, at his death, than there is why his material property should go to them.
It has been said, that, admitting a man to have an absolute property in his ideas, during life, it is a wrong to society to allow the transmission of this right by inheritance, for this reason, viz.: It is said that the right of property naturally terminates with the life of the proprietor; that, in the case of material property, society allow the right to be transmitted to relatives, for the reason that, otherwise, the property, being left without an owner, would become the property of those who should first seize upon it; that it would thus give rise to violent scrambles among those who should be attempting to seize upon it; that, to prevent this violence, society decrees that the property shall go to the immediate family of the deceased; but that, as there could be no scramble or violence to get possession of an idea, at the death of the proprietor, there is no necessity, and therefore no justification, for allowing the principle of inheritance to apply to intellectual property; and that, consequently, such property should become free to all.
This objection is entirely fallacious; and the reason assigned, why material property is allowed to go to the relatives of the deceased, is not the true one. Society do not establish the principle of inheritance arbitrarily, as the objection supposes, to avoid occasions for violent scrambles for the property of the dead; for such scrambles could as well be averted by decreeing that the property should escheat to the government, as by decreeing that it should go to the relatives of the deceased. And if the property have no rightful owner, it perhaps ought to go to the public, and to the government as the representative of, and trustee for, the public. But the principle of inheritance is a principle of natural law, founded on the presumption that, where a deceased person has left no evidence to the contrary, it was his will, (so long as he had his reason, and therefore so long as his will was of any legal importance,) that in that moment, (whenever it might arrive,) in which his property could no longer be useful to, nor be controlled by, himself, all his rights in it should vest in his family. And such a will, or consent, is, in its nature, as valid and sufficient, and the law justly holds it to be as effectual, to convey the right of property, as any consent which a man gives, when in full health, to the conveyance of his right of property for a pecuniary consideration.
The universal nature of mankind, and their nearly or quite universal conduct, throughout life, and in their latest moments of reason, furnish so strong evidence that such is the will of all men, in regard to their property, that governments dare not disregard it—dare not confiscate the property of a deceased person, who left relatives living within any reasonable limit of consanguinity. And mankind in general would as soon rebel against a government, which they knew would confiscate their property at their death, and thus plunder their families of the provision they had made for them, as they would against one that should confiscate it while they were living. There is no species of robbery, which the general sense of mankind would consider more atrocious, on the part of government, than that of confiscating the property of the dead.
“The property of the dead.” That is not an accurate expression. It is not the property of the dead, but of the living; for the right of property passed to the living at or before the moment of the death of the original proprietor.
If, then, the principle of inheritance be a principle of natural law, it is as applicable to intellectual, as to material, property.
THE SALE OF IDEAS.
There remain to be considered some important questions, in regard to the sale of ideas, in connexion with books, machines, statues, pictures, &c. We will first speak of the sale of them in connexion with books; and of the other cases afterward.
When an author sells a copy of his book, does that sale carry with it the right to reprint the book? Or does he reserve that right exclusively to himself?
If he reserve that right exclusively to himself, how does that reservation legally appear, when no express stipulation of the kind is shown?
If the purchaser of a book do not buy with it the right to reprint it, what right of property or use does he buy, in the ideas which the book communicates? And how are legal tribunals to know what right of property, in the ideas, which the book communicates, is conveyed by the sale of the book itself?
Questions of this kind have been proposed, by those who deny that any exclusive right of multiplying copies, can remain with the author, after he has sold copies of his book unreservedly in the market. These persons say that, by selling his book unreservedly, the author necessarily sells the right to make any and all possible uses of the ideas communicated by the book; that the reprinting of the book is only one of the uses, to which the copy sold is capable of being applied; and that the right to use the copy for this purpose, is as much implied in the sale of the book, as is any other use of it whatever.
These questions and arguments were forcibly presented by Justice Yates, and by Lord Chief Justice De Grey, as follows.
Justice Yates said, “Every purchaser of a book is the owner of it; and, as such, he has a right to make what use of it he pleases.
“Property, according to the definition given of it by the defendant’s counsel, is ‘jus utendi, et fruendi’ [the right of using and enjoying]. And the author, by empowering the bookseller to sell, empowers him to convey this general property; and the purchaser makes no stipulations about the manner of using it.
“The publisher himself, who claims this property, sold these books, without making any contract whatever. What color has he to retrench his own contract? or impose such a prohibition?” [a prohibition upon reprinting the book.]
“If the buyer of a book may not make what use of it he pleases, what line can be drawn, that will not tend to supersede all his dominion over it? He may not lend it, if he is not to print it; because it will intrench upon the author’s profits. So that an objection might be made even to his lending the book to his friends; for he may prevent those friends from buying the book; and so the profits of such sale of it will not accrue to the author. I do not see that he would have a right to copy the book he has purchased, if he may not make a print of it; for printing is only a method of transcribing.
“With regard to books, the very matter and contents of the books are, by the author’s publication of them, irrevocably given to the public; they become common; all the sentiments contained therein, rendered universally common; and when the sentiments are made common by the author’s own act, every use of those sentiments must be equally common.
“To talk of restraining this gift, by any mental reservation of the author, or any bargain he may make with his bookseller, seems to me quite chimerical.
“It is by legal actions that other men must judge and direct their conduct; and if such actions plainly import the work being made common; much more, if it be a necessary consequence of the act, ‘that the work is actually thrown open by it;’ no private transaction, or secretly reserved claim of the author, can ever control that necessary consequence. Individuals have no power, (whatever they may wish or intend,) to alter the fixed constitution of things; a man cannot retain what he parts with. If the author will voluntarily let the bird fly, his property is gone; and it will be in vain for him to say ‘he meant to retain’ what is absolutely flown and gone.”*
Lord Chief Justice De Grey said:
“But it is said, that the sale of a printed copy is a qualified or conditional sale, and that the purchaser may make all the uses he pleases of his book, except that one of reprinting it. But where is the evidence of this extraordinary bargain? or where the analogy of law to support the supposition? In all other cases of purchase, payment transfers the whole and absolute property to the buyer; there is no instance where a legal right is otherwise transferred by sale; an example of such a speculative right remaining in the seller. It is a new and metaphysical refinement upon the law; and the laws, like some manufactures, may be drawn so fine as at last to lose their strength with their solidity.”*
These questions and arguments are of vital importance to the principle of intellectual property. They are worthy of being answered. They must be answered, before the principle of exclusive copyright can be maintained, as a part of the law of nature. Yet, I apprehend, they have never been adequately answered.
The common, and I believe the only, answers, that have ever been made to these arguments, have been, 1st. That it is only by the multiplication of copies, that an author can expect to get paid for the labor of producing his book; and therefore it would be unreasonable to suppose that he intends to part with his exclusive right to multiply copies, for so trivial a price as the profit made upon a single book. 2d. That if an author were to part with his exclusive right to multiply copies, his ideas might be misrepresented, mutilated, and attributed to other persons than himself; and thus his reputation suffer, without his having any means of redress; and that it is therefore unreasonable to suppose he intends to subject himself to the liability of such injustice, for so small a consideration as the profit on a single copy of his book.
These are no doubt weighty considerations; but they do not fully meet the question. A man, who gratuitously gives away his ideas in conversation, loses all chance of reaping any pecuniary profit from them. He is also liable to have his views misrepresented, mutilated, and attributed to others than himself. But the law does not, for these reasons, uniformly imply that he reserved any exclusive right of property in, or control over, them. And if it will not imply this, in the case of a man, who gives his ideas gratuitously to the public, why should it do it for a man who has sold, and received a price for, his ideas?
The argument of inadequacy of price is an insufficient one, for various reasons, as follows.
1. Inadequacy of price is, of itself, no objection to the validity of a sale, where no fraud is alleged.
2. Inadequacy of price is oftentimes, in practice, a very difficult thing to be proved; and would be especially so in the case of the copyrights of books. Men’s opinions differ so much as to the intrinsic merits of particular books; and the market value of a copyright often depends so little upon the book’s intrinsic merits, that inadequacy of price could seldom or never be proved. Milton, assuming that he had a perpetual copyright in his Paradise Lost, sold it for five pounds. Yet this was a legal sale, and its validity could not be impeached for inadequacy of price.
3. The difference in price between a book, of which the copyright is reserved, and one of which the copyright is not reserved, is too slight to afford any sufficient evidence, of itself, to a judicial tribunal, whether the copyright was, or was not, reserved.
4. If, as the opponents of an exclusive copyright contend, every purchaser of a book purchases with it the right of reprinting it, no one purchaser could afford to pay but a trivial price above the value of the book, independently of that right; because he would buy no exclusive right; but only a right to be held in common with all other purchasers of copies. He could therefore secure no monopoly in the publication of the book; but could only print it in competition with all others, who should choose to print it. For such a right he could, of course, afford to pay but a merely trivial price, independently of the value of the book for other uses. How then could it ever be proved that he had paid an inadequate price for such a right as he has purchased?
5. If the author, by selling each copy of his book unreservedly, sells with it the right of multiplying copies, then the presumption would be, that he received a price at least somewhat higher, for each copy, than he could have sold it for, if he had expressly stipulated that it should not be used for multiplying copies; and from this presumption it would follow, as a legitimate inference, that he had chosen to adopt this mode of getting paid for his copyright—that is, by a slightly additional price on each copy sold—rather than by the sale of the exclusive copyright to any one individual.
The original question, then, necessarily returns, viz.: What right has the purchaser of the book obtained? Has he purchased the right to multiply copies? Or only the right to use, in other ways, the particular copy that he has purchased? And, especially, how can legal tribunals know what right has been bought and sold?
It evidently will not do for an author, after he has sold a book unreservedly, to say, arbitrarily, that he did not intend to part with his exclusive copyright; since it is clear that, in law, every man must be held to have intended every thing that is necessarily implied in his voluntary act.
The whole question, then, resolves itself into this, viz.: What, on legal principles, is necessarily implied in the sale of a book, by an author, when no express stipulation is entered into, as to the use that is to be made of it? In other words, What rights, in the ideas communicated by the book, does the author necessarily convey, when the sale of the book itself is qualified by no express restriction upon its use?
I shall offer an answer to this question, by attempting to prove, what seems almost too nearly self-evident to need to be proved, viz.: That a book, and the ideas it describes, are, in fact, and in law, distinct commodities; and that an unqualified sale of the book does not, therefore, of itself alone, imply any sale whatever of the ideas it describes, nor the conveyance of any right whatever to the use of those ideas.
By this I mean that the sale of the book conveys, of itself, no right of property or use in the ideas, beyond that merely mentalpossession and mental enjoyment of them, which are indeed a species of property and use; and necessarily, or at least naturally, follow from reading the book; but which, for the sake of brevity and clearness in this discussion, I shall leave out of consideration.*
It will therefore be understood, when, in the remainder of this chapter, I speak of “property” in, and “use” of, ideas, that I mean a property and use beyond, or additional to, this merely mental possession and enjoyment of them.
To state more precisely the point to be proved. Suppose the author of a valuable mechanical invention were to write, and sell unreservedly in the market, a book describing his machine so fully that a reader would be able, from the description given, to construct and operate a similar machine. The purchaser of the book would, in this case, acquire a right to the mental possession, and mental enjoyment, of all the knowledge communicated by the book; but he would acquire, simply by virtue of his purchase of the book, no right whatever to use that knowledge in constructing or operating a machine like the one described. And the same principle applies to all other ideas described in books. This is the point to be proved.
If the first of the foregoing propositions be true, viz.: “That a book, and the ideas it communicates, are, in fact, and in law, distinct commodities,” the truth of the succeeding proposition, viz.: “That an unqualified sale of the book does not, of itself alone, imply any sale whatever of the ideas it describes, nor the conveyance of any right whatever to the use of those ideas,” would seem to follow of course; because the sale of one thing can, perhaps, never, of itself, imply the sale of another thing, that has a separate and distinct existence.
That a book, and the ideas it communicates, are, in fact and in law, separate and distinct commodities, is apparent from the following considerations, viz.
1. What is an idea? It is a production of the mind. It is wholly immaterial. It has no existence, except in the mind. It can exist only in the mind. It no more exists in a book, than it does in a stone, or a tree. It can no more exist in a book, than in a stone, or a tree.
2. What is a book? It is mere paper and ink. It is entirely material. In its nature, it differs as much from an idea, as a stone or a tree differs from an idea. There is no more natural affinity between a book and an idea, than there is between a stone, or a tree, and an idea. That is, an idea will no more inhere in, or adhere to, a book, than it will inhere in, or adhere to, a stone or a tree.
When, therefore, a man buys a book, he does not buy any ideas; because ideas themselves are no part of the book; nor are they in any way attached to the book. They exist only in the mind.
A book, therefore, does not, as, in common parlance, is habitually asserted, contain, any ideas. The most that can be said, is, that it represents, describes, or perhaps more properly still, suggests, or brings to mind, ideas. And how does it do this? In this way only. The book consists of paper, with certain characters, in ink, stamped upon it. These characters were devised to be used as arbitrary signs, or representatives, of certain sounds uttered by the human voice. And by common consent among those, who are acquainted with these arbitrary significations, that have been attached to them, they are used to represent those sounds. The vocal sounds, which these characters arbitrarily represent, are, by common consent, used by mankind, as the names of certain ideas. These names of the ideas are not the ideas themselves, any more than the name of a man is the man himself. But when we hear the names of these ideas, the ideas themselves are brought to our minds; just as, when we hear the name of a man, the man himself is brought to mind. In this way the characters printed, in ink, in a book, are used as the signs, representatives, or names, at second hand, of men’s ideas; that is, they represent certain sounds, which sounds stand for, represent, and thus call to mind, the ideas. This is all the resemblance a book has to the ideas, which it is employed to communicate.
The most, therefore, that can be said of a book, is, that it consists of, or contains, certain material things, to wit, characters in ink, stamped on paper, which, by common consent among mankind, are used to represent, describe, suggest, or carry to one’s mind, certain immaterial things, to wit, ideas.
It is, therefore, only by a figure of speech, that we say that a book contains ideas. We mean only that it contains, or consists of, certain material things, which suggest ideas. It contains only such material signs, symbols, or arbitrary representatives of ideas, as one mind employs in order to suggest or convey its ideas to other minds.
Now, unless the sale of a material symbol, or representative, be legally and necessarily identical with the sale of the immaterial idea, which that symbol represents, or suggests, it is clear that the sale of a book is not, legally or necessarily, identical with the sale of the ideas, which that book may suggest to the reader.
The ideas themselves are not contained in the book; they constitute no part of the book; they have their whole existence entirely separate from the book—that is, in the mind; the whole object, design, and effect of the book are, to suggest certain ideas to the mind of the reader, and thereby act as a vehicle, or instrumentality, for conveying the ideas from one mind to another.
What ground is there, then, for saying that the sale of the book is necessarily or legally identical with the sale of the ideas, which it communicates, describes, or suggests? None whatever.
Suppose a man make a book, containing such drawings, pictures, and written descriptions, of his house, his farm, his horses, and his cattle, as are sufficient to bring those commodities to the mind of the reader. And suppose he then sell that book unreservedly in the market. Does the purchaser of the book acquire, by virtue of that purchase, any right of property or use in the commodities described in the book? Certainly not. And why not? Simply because the book, and the things it describes, are, in fact, and in law, separate and distinct commodities; and the sale of the one does not, therefore, at all imply the sale of the other.
The same principle applies to a book, that describes ideas, instead of houses and lands. The book, and the ideas it describes, are as much separate and distinct commodities, in the one case, as are the book, and the houses and lands it describes, in the other. And the sale of the book, that describes the ideas, no more implies the sale of the ideas, than the sale of the book, that describes the houses and lands, implies the sale of the houses and lands.
The only difference between the two cases, is this wholly immaterial one, viz.: that the written descriptions, of the ideas, are sufficient to put the reader in actual possession of the ideas described—that is, in mental possession of them, which is the only possession, of which they are susceptible; whereas the written descriptions, of the houses and lands, are not sufficient to put the reader in actual possession of those commodities; since the possession of houses and lands must be a physical, instead of a mental one. But this difference, in the two cases, is wholly immaterial to the right of property for use; because simple possession of the ideas, (and this is all the book gives,) is of no importance, in law, without the right of property for use—as has been already explained in chapter 2d, section 2.*
The conclusion, therefore, that the sale of a book, describing ideas, gives no right of property in the ideas, for use, is just as valid and inevitable, as is the conclusion, that the sale of a book, describing houses and lands, gives no right of property in the houses and lands, for use.
An author, in selling a book, sells nothing but the book itself; the right to use the book itself; and the right to all the benefits, which necessarily or naturally result to the reader from the use of the book alone. He sells nothing that the book describes; nor the right to use any thing that the book describes.
The question arises, then, what is necessarily, naturally, or legally involved in the use of the book alone? The answer is this.
The whole object and effect of the book itself, as a representative of ideas, are accomplished, when it has suggested to its readers all the ideas which it can suggest. Every possible use and power of the book itself, in relation to the ideas it describes, are exhausted in the execution of that single function. After that function is performed, the book itself is thrown aside, and has no part nor lot whatever in any of the uses, to which the ideas, it has suggested, may be applied. How, then, can it be said that the use of the book involves the use of the ideas it communicates, when the use of the ideas is a wholly separate act from the use of the book itself; and the use of the book itself is a wholly separate act from the use of the ideas? There would be just as much reason in saying that the use of a book, that described a farm, involved the use of the farm, as there is in saying that the use of a book, describing ideas, involves the use of those ideas.
Plainly, then, an author, by describing his ideas in a book, and then selling the book for use, gives no more right to the use of his ideas, than a man, who describes his farm in a book, and then sells the book for use, gives a right to the use of his farm.
Certainly, too, every purchaser of a book, that describes ideas, is as much bound to know, that the book and the ideas are separate and distinct commodities, as the purchaser of a book, that describes a farm, is bound to know that the book and the farm are separate and distinct commodities. And the purchaser of a book is also bound to know, that he no more acquires a right to use the ideas, by simply buying a description of them, than he acquires a right to use a farm, by simply buying a description of it.
But perhaps it will be said that the whole object, in buying a book, is to get possession of the ideas it describes; and that the whole object, in getting possession of the ideas it describes, is to use them for our benefit, as in the case of any material commodities, which we seek to get possession of; that the author knows all this when he sells the book; and that the law will consequently imply that he consented to it; inasmuch as otherwise it would impute to him the fraud of making a sale, in form, without intending that the real benefits of the sale should be enjoyed by the purchaser.
But there is no such analogy, between material and immaterial things, as is here assumed. The possession of material things, without the right of use, is a burden, because it imposes labor, without profit. Men therefore do not desire the possession of material things, unless they have also the right of using them. But it is wholly different with ideas. The simple possession of them is necessarily a good. They are no burden. They impose no profitless labor upon the possessor. They furnish food and enjoyment for his mind, and promote its health, strength, growth, and happiness, even though he be not permitted to use them, in competition with their owner, as a means of procuring subsistence for his body.
A very large proportion of all the books, that are purchased, are purchased solely for the mental enjoyment and instruction to be obtained by reading them; and not for the purpose of reprinting them, nor of using the ideas for any pecuniary end.
There is, therefore, no ground for saying that the whole object of buying books, is to get the ideas, to be used for pecuniary purposes; and that, unless they can be so used, the author has practised a fraud on the purchaser. The mental enjoyment and instruction, which the reading of books affords, are sufficient motives for the purchase of books, even though the right to use the ideas described in them, for pecuniary ends, be no part of the purchase.
Taking it for granted that it has now been established, that a book itself contains no ideas; that a book, and the ideas it describes, are, in fact, and in law, distinct commodities; and that the sale of the book legally implies no sale of the ideas for use (beyond the simple mental possession and enjoyment of them); I stop to anticipate an objection, viz.: It will be asked how one man can trespass upon another man’s right of property, in ideas, by simply printing and selling a book, that contains no ideas?
The answer to this question is, that a book cannot be printed without using the author’s ideas; inasmuch as those ideas are an indispensable guide to the work of printing a book that shall describe them. They are an indispensable guide to the work of setting the type that are to represent those ideas. It is impossible, therefore, that a book can be printed, without using the ideas which the book is to describe. This use, therefore, of an author’s ideas, unless with his consent, expressed or implied, is a trespass upon his right of property in them. The use of his ideas, without his consent, in making a valuable book, is as much a trespass upon his right of property in those ideas, as the use of a man’s printing press, without his consent, in printing the book, would be a trespass upon the owner’s right of property in the printing press.
But not merely the printing of a book, without the author’s consent, is a trespass upon his right of property in his ideas, but the sale, and even the reading, of a book thus printed, is also a trespass upon the same right of property—and why? Because the right of property is a right of absolute dominion. The owner of ideas, therefore, has a right to inhibit—and, where he reserves his copyright, he does inhibit—the communication of his ideas, from one mind to another, through the instrumentality of any books whatever, except such as he himself prints, or licenses to be printed. Any body, therefore, who either sells or reads a book, not printed by the author, nor licensed by him to be printed, is an accomplice and agent in taking the author’s ideas out of his control, and in communicating them through a channel or instrumentality, which he has inhibited to be used in the communication of his ideas.
So absolute is an author’s right of dominion over his ideas, that he may forbid their being communicated even by the human voice, if he so please. And such prohibition would be as perfectly legal, as any other act of dominion over them.
An author may, if he please, by express contract, restrict the communication of his ideas, beyond the first purchasers of the books, which he himself prints, or licenses to be printed; and thus make it necessary for every man to buy a book, and pay tribute on it to the author, in order to become-acquainted with the ideas. And there may, perhaps often, arise cases where it would be for the interest of an author to do so. But without such an express contract, the presumption of law would be, that the purchaser of a book had the consent of the author to sell it, lend it, or dispose of it, at his pleasure, as he would any other material property; and that every one, into whose hands it should thus lawfully come, might read it.
But here another question will be raised, viz.
If a book, and the ideas it describes, are distinct commodities; and if the sale of the book do not imply the sale of any right of property in the ideas described in it, (beyond the mere possession and mental enjoyment of them;) how is it that men can ever have a right to use any of the ideas described in books, without making a special purchase of them, separately from the book?
It is important that this question be answered; because, although the productions of every man’s mind are theoretically his property, yet we see that, in practice, not all, but nearly all, the ideas, that are described in books, are freely used by mankind at large, in any and every way in which they please to use them—(except the single one of reprinting the author’s descriptions of them)—without making any special purchase of them from the author, separately from the purchase of the books describing them. It may seem, at first view, that this practice must be illegal. But I shall attempt to show that mankind have a legal right to use, in this way, not all, but nearly all, the ideas that are described in books. And the question now is, how can they have this right, consistently with the principles hitherto laid down in this essay?
The answer to this question is to be obtained by applying, to each case, these general rules, viz.
When an author sells a book, describing his ideas, the law presumes that he intends to retain all such of his original exclusive rights of property in them, as may be practically valuable to him; and that he intends to abandon—not to sell, but to abandon—all such of his original exclusive rights of property in them, as would not be of any value to him, if retained.
The law raises these presumptions, on his part, because they are abstractly reasonable, and conformable to the principles of action, that generally govern mankind—that is, mankind generally wish to preserve all their rights of property, that will be practically valuable to them; and they generally wish not to look after, watch over, or consequently to preserve, any rights of property, that are too insignificant to be of any practical value to them.
These rules also, when applied to ideas, are only the synonyms or equivalents of the general principles, on which the administration of justice proceeds in all cases, viz.: that the government is established and maintained for practical, and not for merely theoretical, purposes; and that it will therefore protect a man in the possession of every thing that is his, and that is of any real appreciable value to him; but that it will incur neither the trouble nor expense of protecting him in that, which, though it may be theoretically his, is of no real appreciable value to him.
This, too, is, practically speaking, all the protection, which the law can give to a man’s rights of property, in any case; whether the property be material or immaterial; because the law can award no damages for the invasion of rights, unless the injury suffered be large enough to be capable of being measured by at least some legal standard of value, as a cent, a farthing, a penny, or some measure of that kind.
These principles are usually expressed by the legal maxim, de minimis non curat lex [the law takes no care of trifles;] (which maxim, by the way, implies that the law does take care of every thing that is of any real appreciable value).
The result of these principles, then, when applied to ideas, is simply this, viz.: wherever an author’s exclusive rights of property in them, can be of any real appreciable value to him, the law will protect him in them; inasmuch as it will presume that he desires to retain them. But wherever his exclusive rights of property in them, can be of no real appreciable value to him, the law will not protect them; but will presume that he voluntarily abandons them.
In other words, wherever an exclusive right of use would be more profitable to the author, than a right in common with the rest of mankind, there his exclusive right is presumed to be retained. But wherever a right of use, in common with the rest of mankind, would be just as profitable to the author, as an exclusive right, there his exclusive right is presumed to be abandoned, and only a common right retained.
Now, in order to determine what exclusive rights of property, in his ideas, can be made more valuable to the author, than a common right, we must determine, in the case of each idea, or collection of ideas, what profitable use he could make of an exclusive right, over a common right; or, on the other hand, what profits he would lose, by suffering his exclusive right to become common to all. And this question is one, which, in practice, could generally be very easily settled.
In the case of the most important labor-saving inventions, for example, the exclusive right of using them, is evidently more valuable than a right in common with the rest of mankind; because an exclusive right will sell for a price in the market; whereas a common right will not. An exclusive right will also be more profitable for the inventor, if wish to use it himself, than a common right; because it will enable him to avoid competition, and thus obtain a higher price for his labor. For these reasons the law will presume, in the case of such inventions—however fully they may be described in books, and however unreservedly such books may be sold in the market—that the authors choose to retain their exclusive right in them, for purposes of labor. At the same time, perhaps, the law will not presume that the inventors retain the exclusive right to their inventions, for literary purposes—that is, for the purpose of writing books describing them—because the profits, on the sale of such books, may be insignificant; and because also it may be for the interest of the inventors to have their inventions described by others than themselves, and thus more widely advertised for sale.
Nevertheless, in the case of most of the ideas described in books, the only exclusive right, that can be of any profit to the author, over a common right, is the right of using them for literary purposes. This, therefore, is the only exclusive right, which the law will ordinarily presume that the author wishes to retain.
The ideas, described in print, may be classed—with reference to the rights retained, and the rights abandoned, by the authors—under three heads.
In the first class may be reckoned those labor-saving, and other valuable, inventions, of which the authors retain the exclusive use, for the particular purposes for which the inventions are specially designed; but of which the authors do not, ordinarily, retain the exclusive use, for literary purposes—that is, for the purpose of writing descriptions of them.
In the second class may be reckoned those ideas, of which the authors retain the exclusive use, for literary purposes, but not for any other purpose.
In the third class may be reckoned those ideas, of which the authors retain no exclusive use whatever.
But let us explain, a little more particularly, the principles of law applicable to each of these classes of ideas.
1. As an example of the first class of ideas, take the invention of the steam engine. The invention itself is of immense value, for purposes of labor; but a book, describing it, would probably yield little or no profit, as a merely literary enterprise. If, therefore, the inventor of the steam engine were to write a book, making the invention fully known to the public, the law would nevertheless presume that he reserved his exclusive right to the invention, for use as a motive power; but, at the same time, it would probably presume that he abandoned his exclusive right to it, for literary purposes; and that he was willing it should be freely written about, by all who might choose to write about it. And even if other men should reprint his own description of it, without his consent, very likely the law would not say that any wrong had been done him; but rather a benefit, inasmuch as his invention would thus be more widely advertised, for sale, than it otherwise would be.
But if any other man, than the inventor, were to write a book describing the steam engine, the law would most likely presume that he wrote it solely as a literary enterprise; and that he therefore wished to retain his exclusive right of property in it.
2. In the second class of ideas—those, in which the authors retain an exclusive right, for literary purposes, but not for any other use—may be reckoned an infinite number of ideas, that are really useful to mankind, as guides for their conduct, under various circumstances in life; but which, nevertheless, have singly no appreciable market value, for use. Take, for example, the ideas, that the earth is a globe; that it turns on its axis; that it revolves round the sun; that honesty is the best policy; that industry and economy are the roads to wealth; that certain kinds of labor are injurious to the health; that certain kinds of food are more nutritious than others; that certain diseases are contagious, and others not; that certain animals are untamable and dangerous; that other animals are harmless, susceptible of being domesticated, and made subservient to the uses of man; that certain systems of philosophy and religion have more truth in them than others; and an infinite number of other ideas, which are valuable to mankind for use; but which, nevertheless, if offered for sale singly in the market, would not bring a farthing apiece, from one man in a thousand.
The only way, then, in which any exclusive property, in ideas of this kind, can be made valuable to the authors, is by using them for literary purposes, instead of attempting to sell the ideas themselves singly for use.
Since, then, this right to use one’s ideas, of this kind, for literary purposes, is the only exclusive right of property, that can be of any practical value to the author, it is the only exclusive right that the law will presume that he intends, or desires, to retain, when he sells a book describing them.
This exclusive right of using ideas for literary purposes, is what we call the copyright. And this is the only exclusive right of property, which authors usually retain, or wish to retain, in the ideas they describe in their books.
But, because a man has the exclusive right of using his own original ideas, for literary purposes, it must not be inferred that authors have any exclusive right of property of this kind, except in those particular ideas, which they themselves originate. Now it is only a very few of the leading, primary, and most important ideas, described in books, that are original with the authors of the books; inasmuch as the elementary truths, in nearly all departments of knowledge, have been long known to mankind. An author’s originality is, therefore, generally confined to secondary and subsidiary ideas, such as the combination, arrangement, and application of the leading or elementary ideas, and the style of the composition describing them. And it is only in these original ideas of his own, that the law gives him a copyright, or any exclusive property.
3. Among the examples of the third class of ideas—in which no exclusive right whatever is retained—may be reckoned a large proportion of the ideas, which appear in newspapers; especially the accounts of passing events, and comments thereon; which ideas have an interest to-day, but will be stale to-morrow; and an exclusive right in them will never be of any appreciable value to the author, either for the purpose of being reprinted, or for any other use. In this case the law presumes that the author retains no exclusive right of property in them; simply because such exclusive right would be of no practical value to him.
If, however, these ideas have any particular intellectual merit, which would add to the author’s reputation, the law will presume that he wishes to retain his exclusive right of property in them, so far as is necessary to secure to himself the reputation of authorship, even though no direct pecuniary advantage is to be derived from them. The law, therefore, will require that those, who reprint such ideas, should ascribe them to the true author, instead of printing them as their own. Of course this requirement applies only to such ideas, as have such an essential and important merit, as the authors may reasonably desire the credit of. It would not apply to ideas too trivial to be worthy of a reasonable man’s consideration. To such, the principle, that the law does not take care of trifles, would apply.
I shall now take it for granted, that it has been sufficiently shown, that a book, and the ideas described in it, are, in fact, and in law, distinct commodities; that the sale of the former implies no sale of any right of property in the latter, beyond the mere possession and mental enjoyment of them; that, with these exceptions, the law presumes that an author desires to retain his exclusive right in all his original ideas, for all purposes whatsoever, for which such exclusive right will have an appreciable value, pecuniarily or otherwise, over a right in common with the rest of mankind.
This presumption of law, in favor of the author, arises, without any special notice being given, in the book, that he wishes to retain his copyright, or any other exclusive right, in the ideas described. It arises, in the case of ideas, on the same principles, and for the same reasons, as in the case of material property, viz.: that the ideas are the products of labor; that they are naturally the property of the producer; and that it is as unreasonable to presume that he would gratuitously part with any valuable rights in them, as it is that he would gratuitously part with any equally valuable rights in his material property.
It is not legally necessary, therefore, that an author should give notice, in his book, that he retains his copyright, or any other right in the ideas described. Indeed it might, in some cases, be dangerous to give the notice “copyright reserved;” that is, in cases where still other rights, than the copyright, were intended to be reserved; because such notice, unaccompanied by any other special reservation, might imply that no other rights, than the copyright, were reserved.
But although it might be dangerous to give notice, simply of a reservation of “copyright,” where still other rights were intended to be reserved—as in the case of books describing valuable mechanical inventions, and also in the case of dramatic and musical compositions, where the right of performing the pieces was intended to be reserved—it might, nevertheless, be highly judicious, to give notice of the reservation, both of the copyright, and of all other rights intended to be reserved, in order to guard against any presumption of abandonment, in doubtful cases, against the will of the author.
Taking it for granted that the question, Whether the sale of a book unreservedly, implies a sale, for use, of the ideas described in it? has now been sufficiently answered, I proceed to answer another question, very similar in character and importance, to wit: Whether if an inventor make an unreserved sale of a machine, constructed in accordance with his invention, such sale will include the sale of a right to construct other similar machines? or only a right to use the particular machine sold?
It will be seen at once that much of the same reasoning, that is applicable to books, and the ideas described in them, is applicable also to machines, and the ideas, after which they are constructed. For example, the machine, and the idea, after which it is constructed, are, in fact and in law, separate and distinct commodities; as much so as are a book, and the ideas described in it. The machine does not literally contain the idea, after which it was constructed; although we are in the habit of speaking of machines in this manner. The idea does not exist in the machine; it exists only in the mind. The machine consists only of wood, iron, and other corporeal substances. The forms and shapes, given to those substances, are only effects, produced upon them by a combination of causes, to wit, the idea of the inventor, and the physical labor of the machinist; just as the order, arrangement, and collocation of the printed letters in a book, are effects produced by a combination of causes, to wit, the ideas of the author, and the physical labor of the printer. In both cases—that of a machine, and that of a book—we can ascertain the nature of the causes, (that is, the ideas, and the physical labor,) by an examination of their effects. But the causes and their effects are not, therefore identical. They are, in fact and in law, distinct entities; as much so as are any other causes and their effects. The machine, too, as a whole—that is, the wood, iron, or other corporeal substances, with the effects produced upon them, or the shapes given to them, by the idea of the inventor and the labor of the machinist—is clearly, in fact and in law, a distinct entity from the idea of the inventor, which can exist only in the mind. And the sale of the machine, therefore, implies no sale of the inventor’s idea, any farther or otherwise than this, to wit. The sale of the machine implies a right to use it; and the right to use it, implies a right to use the idea of the inventor, so far as it may be necessary to use it, in order to use the machine; but no farther.
The same question, in substance, may now be asked, in regard to a machine, that was before suggested in regard to a book, viz.: If a machine, and the inventor’s idea, after which it was constructed, be, in fact, and in law, distinct commodities; and if the machine do not literally contain the inventor’s idea; how can his rights of property, in that idea, be trespassed upon, by another person, in constructing or using a similar machine—that is, a machine which does not contain any idea whatever?
The answer is the same as in the case of the book, viz.: that, although the machine do not literally contain the inventor’s idea, yet the machine cannot be constructed without using his idea. That idea is an indispensable guide to the construction of the machine. And this use of the inventor’s idea, without his consent, is a violation of his rights of property in it.
So, also, in operating a machine, the operator uses the inventor’s idea; for he designs and endeavors to produce the same results, as those intended by the inventor, and by the same process, as that devised by the inventor. This, therefore, is a use of the inventor’s idea, and is consequently a trespass upon his rights.
The same principles apply to sculpture, painting, drawing, &c. A statute, and the design after which it was sculptured, are distinct commodities; and the sale of the statute does not convey any right to use the sculptor’s design, for the purpose of making a copy. The same is true of paintings and drawings, the designs of which can be made of sufficient practical value to the authors, to be entitled to be recognized, by law, as objects of private property.
It is not legally necessary to give notice, on a machine, that the invention is reserved; because, if the invention be such, as that the exclusive use of it will be of any really appreciable value to the author, every body is bound to presume that it is reserved. But where the fact of value is at all doubtful, it may be of utility to give the notice, in order to guard against the doubt.
THE POLICY OF PERPETUITY IN INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.
As a matter of public policy, the expediency of allowing a man a perpetual property in his ideas, is as clear as is that of allowing him a perpetual property in material things.
What is the argument of policy against a perpetual property in ideas? Principally this—that the world will get ideas cheaper, if they get them for nothing, than if they pay for them.
This argument would be just as good in favor of abolishing the right of property in the material products of men’s labor, as it is for abolishing it in intellectual ones. Take wheat, for example. If the right of property in wheat were abolished, the world would get the stock of wheat, that is now on hand, for nothing. But the next crop of wheat would be a small one; and people would then learn, that in the long run, the cheapest mode, and the only mode, of procuring a constant and ample supply of wheat, is to acknowledge that wheat is the property of the producers, and then to buy it of them by voluntary contract. Under the system of a right of property in wheat, there will be a perpetual supply of wheat; because men have a sufficient motive to produce it; and a man can always procure enough for his uses, by giving a reasonable proportion of the products of his own labor in exchange. But under the system of no right of property in wheat, he would be able to get wheat at no price whatever, after the present stock should be consumed; simply because men would have no sufficient motive to produce wheat, unless their right of property in it were acknowledged.
The principle is the same in regard to valuable ideas. We can get the free use of the present stock of ideas, by destroying the rights of the producers to their property in them. But if we do, the next crop of ideas will be a small one, as in the case of the wheat.
If we want no new ideas, but only wish to get the use of the present stock for nothing, without regard to justice, the true way undoubtedly is, to abolish all rights of property in them. But if we wish to induce men of inventive minds to go on producing new ideas, the true way certainly, if not the only way, is to respect their rights of property in those they have already produced.
But governments have the idea that intellectual men—especially authors and inventors—can be induced to work, if they can but be permitted to enjoy a partial or temporary property in the products of their labor; while it is conceded that all the rest of mankind should enjoy a full and perpetual property, in the products of theirs. But there are the same reasons of policy, for allowing men a perpetual property in their ideas, that there are for allowing them a perpetual property in the material products of their labor.
What are the great incentives to enterprise and industry in the production of material wealth? Plainly these—the thoughts that whatever a man acquires, will be his during life, or during pleasure, and that, at his death, whatever he leaves, will go to those whom he wishes to provide for. These are the all-powerful springs, and almost the only springs, that keep all physical industry in motion, and supply the world with wealth.
The policy of nature, for supplying mankind with subsistence, is, that each man shall labor, first and principally, for himself, and those most dear to him; and only secondarily and discretionally, for mankind in general; unless, indeed, his labors for mankind at large, can be made productive of support to himself, and those naturally dependent on him. In this way, each man laboring for, and supplying, those nearest to him, all are labored for, and supplied. This policy is dictated and impelled by the natural strength of the human affections, which are uncontrollable by human statutes; and no adverse policy, devised or dictated by lawgivers, such as that of requiring a man to work for mankind at large, instead of working for himself and his friends, can either stifle these natural motives, or supply others of any thing like equal power over the energies of men.
But how would these motives be weakened, and nearly deadened, by the knowledge that, at the end of a brief period, the products of a man’s labor would be taken from him, against his will, and given to men, whom he never knew, or knowing, does not love? And how would the general production of wealth be checked, and nearly paralyzed, by the establishment of such a principle, as a universal law? How many fruitful farms, for example, would ever have been reclaimed from their wilderness state, if those, who felled the trees, and subdued the soil, had known that, after a period of fourteen years, the fruits of their labors would be taken from them and their families, and be made the common property of the world? How many substantial, comfortable, and elegant dwellings would ever have been erected, if those, who built them, had known that, after occupying them, with their families, for fourteen years, they would be required to admit the world at large to an equal occupancy with themselves? The universal, and the universally known, nature of man answers these questions; and tells us that, with such a prospect before them, mankind, as a general rule, would labor only for the production of such things, as they and theirs could actually consume within the time they were allowed to possess them; that they would not labor for the benefit of robbers, intruders, or strangers; that they would therefore attempt none of those accumulations for the future, which each man and each generation of men now attempt, under the inducements furnished by the principle of perpetual property, in one’s self and his descendants.
The consequence, therefore, of such a principle would be universal poverty. Men would produce only as they consumed. And this state of poverty would continue so long as the right of individual and permanent property was denied. But let the right of individual and perpetual property, in the products of one’s labor, be acknowledged, and the whole face of things changes at once. Each man, secured in his right to what he produces, commences to accumulate for the benefit of himself, and those whom he desires to protect. He controls and enjoys his accumulations during life, and at death leaves an important portion of them to his children, to aid them in making still greater accumulations, which they, in turn, leave to their children. And this process continues, until the world arrives at that state of wealth, in which we now find it; the whole world enriched by the wealth of individual proprietors; instead of the whole world being impoverished, as in the other case, through the impoverishment of the individual producers of wealth.
Such being the law of man’s nature, imperatively controlling his motives and energies, there is no reason why the true policy indicated by it—that is, the policy of perpetual property—should not be applied as well to the producers of intellectual, as of material, wealth. There is no reason why the principle of individual and perpetual property, in ideas, will not prove as beneficient towards the whole human family, by stimulating the production of valuable ideas, as does the same principle when applied to corporeal things. Men produce valuable ideas just in proportion as they are furnished with the necessary facilities, and stimulated by adequate motives. This they do under the influence of the same law, which stimulates them to the production of material wealth. And the increase of intellectual wealth would be as much accelerated, by the adoption of the principle of perpetuity, in reference to intellectual property, as is the increase of material wealth, by the adoption of the same principle, in reference to material property. On the other hand, the production of intellectual wealth is as much checked, and discouraged, by the systematic plunder of the producers, as the production of material wealth would be, by the systematic plunder of its producers. The production of intellectual and of material wealth obeys the same laws in these particulars. And these laws are utterly irrevocable by human enactments. Government cannot compel the Arkwrights, and Fultons, and Morses to invent their great ideas, and give them to mankind. It can only induce and enable them to do it. And this the government must do, or mankind must lose the benefits of the ideas themselves.
Such, then, being the inevitable conditions, on which alone these valuable ideas can be obtained, the questions for society to settle are, simply, whether government shall encourage the production of these ideas, by protecting them as property to their producers? And whether, when the public want them, they shall be necessitated to buy them, and pay for them, as for other property? Or whether the production of them shall be discouraged and suppressed, by the systematic and legalized robbery of the producers?
At present, the United States, England, and some other nations say, by their laws, “we will give this property a partial protection—that is, the protection of civil, but not of criminal, laws; and even that protection it shall have only for a brief period; after which, it shall be a subject for free plunder by all.”
What effect this system has upon the production of valuable ideas, may be judged of, by the effect, which a similar system confessedly would have, upon the production of wealth, by the physical industry of men. If such a system would discourage all physical industry, it now discourages all intellectual effort, in a corresponding degree. And, consequently, we now have a correspondingly less number of valuable inventions, than we otherwise should have. Under a system of full protection—that is, the protection of both civil and criminal laws—and of perpetual property in the producers, we should doubtless have five, ten, twenty, or more times as many valuable inventions, as we now have. This may be safely predicated, both from the general principles governing the production of all valuable commodities, namely, that they are produced in quantities corresponding to the protection afforded them, and the prices paid for them; and also from an observation of the present condition of inventors generally, and of the difficulties they encounter in bringing out their ideas. What is that condition? And what are those difficulties? In the first place, the general condition, of both authors and inventors, is that of poverty. Doing incomparably more to enlighten and enrich mankind, than any other persons, they are probably, as a class, poorer than any other industrious class in the community. This is all owing, especially in the case of inventors, to the miserable protection afforded to their property, and the consequently small price they obtain for their labor. In the second place, the difficulties they experience in bringing out their ideas, arise solely from their poverty, and their inability to obtain the necessary capital with which to make their experiments, and upon which to live while making them. This inability to obtain capital, results wholly from the want of protection given to such property; whereby the value of each inventor’s prospective property, in his inventions, is rendered so precarious as to be a wholly inadequate security for investments. The natural risks of an inventor’s failure to make an invention, interpose such an obstacle to the procuring of capital, as can be overcome only by the prospect of large profits in case of success. But when this prospect of large profits, in case of success, is cut off by the inadequate protection afforded to the property to be produced, and the brief period for which even that protection is afforded, there is no adequate security left, as a basis for investments. And nearly all capitalists view the matter in this light. Inventors, therefore, as a general rule, are unable to procure capital. The consequence of this want of capital is the same, in the case of inventors, that it is in the case of any of the other industrial classes; for an inventor can no more produce ideas, without a money capital, than other men can produce houses, ships, or railroads, without a similar capital. The result is, that a large portion of the inventions, that otherwise would be made, are never brought out; and the world loses the benefit of them. The operation of these causes, in crippling the powers of inventors, is so general, so nearly universal, and so severe, as to have become a matter of the most public notoriety. Yet the true remedy, and what must, in the nature of things, be the only true and practicable remedy, is seldom proposed, and has never been adopted.
If the property of inventors were fully protected, and made perpetual, they would find no more difficulty in obtaining the capital necessary for their purposes, than other men do in finding it for theirs; because, although there may be more risk as to the success of a single experiment of theirs, than there is of the success of the ordinary operations of business, yet, in the long run, their labors would be much more lucrative, than the business of other men; and this prospect of superior profit, would enable them easily to command the necessary capital. Invention would become a regular business, a distinct profession, on the part of large numbers of men who have a talent for it, instead of being, as now, little more than the merely occasional occupation of here and there an individual. The number of inventors would thus, not only be greatly increased, but individual inventors would produce many more inventions than they now do. The number of persons, who have a natural capacity for invention, is probably as great as the number of those, who have a natural capacity for poetry, painting, sculpture, or oratory. And doubtless as many have been disabled and dissuaded, by want of means and inducements, from becoming inventors, as have been disabled and dissuaded, by the same causes, from becoming poets, painters, sculptors, or orators. But under a system of full protection, and perpetual property in their inventions, these naturally born inventors would nearly all devote themselves to invention, as their most congenial and lucrative pursuit. And the result doubtless would be, that we should have ten, twenty, and most probably fifty, or one hundred times as many, valuable inventions, as we now have.
Mankind do not perceive their true interests on this subject; and they are paying the penalty for their blindness, in the heavy toil, and the lack of wealth, which so large a portion of them endure. They have not yet fully learned that their brains, and not their hands, were designed for the performance of all heavy and rapid labor—that is, through the medium of labor-performing inventions. Yet such is the truth, as witness the water wheels, the steam engines, the electric telegraphs, the power looms, the spinning machines, the cotton gins, the carding machines, the sewing machines, the planing machines, the printing presses, the railroads, the vessels propelled by wind and steam, and the thousands of other inventions, (very many of which are so old, and in such common use, that we are apt to forget that they are inventions,) by means of which the power and speed of labor are so wonderfully, and almost miraculously, increased. Compare the speed, and the amount of the labor, performed by these instrumentalities, with the speed, and the amount of the labor, performed by men, without the use of these or other inventions; in other words, compare the labors of civilized men, accomplished through the instrumentality of labor-performing inventions, with the labor of savages, accomplished with the hands, unaided by such inventions; and we shall see at once the difference between men’s brains and their hands, as instruments of labor. If, now, the products of men’s brain labor, were as fully secured to the producers, as are the products of their hand labor, we should see such a development of brain labor, (in the shape of labor-performing inventions,) and of consequent wealth, as the wildest dreams of men have doubtless never conceived of.
Another consideration, that specially commends these inventions to the protection of the law, is, that the wealth, that results from them, cannot be monopolized by the owners of the inventions; but is generally distributed, with great impartiality, among all classes of society, from the richest to the poorest. How is this done? In this way. If the inventor becomes the manufacturer of the thing invented, he, like all other men, finds it for his interest to make quick sales, at small profits, rather than slow and small sales, at large profits; because he will thereby derive the greatest aggregate income from his invention. If, on the other hand, he chooses to license others to manufacture the thing he has invented, the same principle operates; and he finds it for his interest to license a large number of manufacturers, at low prices, rather than a small number, at high prices. He thereby insures such a competition between them, as will compel them to make quick and large sales, at small profits, rather than slow and small sales, at large profits.
If the thing invented be of much importance, and one for which there is a large demand in the community, the inventor generally finds it for his interest to license others to manufacture it, rather than become the manufacturer himself; because he thereby derives a greater profit from his invention, and also finds leisure and means for the more agreeable and lucrative employment of making still other inventions, the use of which he will sell or rent in like manner.
Thus, in all cases, the necessary operation of the laws of trade, or the principles of self-interest, on the part of the inventor, is to induce him, (either directly, as his own manufacturer, or indirectly, through those whom he licenses,) to insure a supply of the commodity to the whole community, at moderate prices. And this depression of prices is, in most cases, still further enforced by rival inventions, which accomplish the same results by different processes. In this way, the wealth produced by an invention, is spread abroad amongst the people at large, at such low rates of compensation, that the inventor secures but a very small portion of that wealth to himself, to wit: that portion only, which is paid him for the privilege of manufacturing and using the thing he has invented. And that portion, I presume, is certainly, on an average, not more than one per centum of the wealth actually created by his invention.*
Thus, in effect, an inventor really gives, outright to society, ninety-nine one-hundredths of all the wealth, which his invention produces. Yet society are so unwise, impolitic, ungenerous, and unjust, as to wish to deprive him even of the one per centum, which he wishes to retain, of the products of his labor. And after a period of fourteen years, they do deprive him of it.
Other producers, in their exchanges with their fellow men, give only dollar for dollar; and yet the government, by both civil and criminal laws, protects the products of their labor to them in perpetuity—that is, to them and their heirs and assigns forever. But inventors, who produce incomparably more than other men, and who, in their exchanges with their fellow men, are habitually accustomed to give one hundred for one, are systematically discouraged, disabled, and even deterred from producing inventions, by being denied all but an imperfect protection, and allowed even that only for a brief period; after which their property is made free plunder for all.
To ask if this be justice, would be an insult to the reason of all. The question now is, whether it be good policy for the public themselves, to discourage and suppress, by this systematic and wholesale robbery, those producers, who, if protected like other men, will give them an hundred for one? Whether the people at large can afford thus to impoverish themselves, by discouraging and suppressing the production of those inventions, which do nothing but enrich them? Can they afford to deprive themselves of the benefits of those inventions, which they otherwise might have, by refusing to inventors even one per centum of the wealth they produce? Can they, in other words, afford to lose the ninety-nine per centum themselves, to avoid paying the one per centum to the producers? These inventions cannot, and will not, be produced in adequate numbers, unless adequately paid for. That is a fixed principle in the natural law of production. How much clear gain, then, (for that is the true question to be solved by them,) will mankind realize, in the long run, from refusing to trade with, or encourage, a class of producers, who offer them, in exchange, a hundred for one? The world has long ago decided, that it is the wisest policy to protect the property of, and thereby encourage, those merely ordinary producers of material wealth, who, in their exchanges with their fellow men, demand dollar for dollar. Yet, strange to say, the world has not yet learned, that it is an unwise policy, to systematically plunder, and thereby systematically discourage, those extraordinary producers, (the inventors,) who, in their exchanges with their fellow men, ask but one dollar in exchange for a hundred! The fabled folly of starving the hen, that laid the golden eggs, is fully realized in the conduct of society in plundering and starving their inventors. These labor-saving and labor-performing inventions are the great fountains of wealth, without which mankind, (if the race could subsist at all,) would be only a few wretched savages, scarcely elevated, either in mental development, or physical comfort, above the condition of wild beasts. Yet they pretend to regard it as an act of both policy and justice, to outlaw, plunder, and treat as an enemy, every man who dares to open one of these fountains for their benefit—as if it were a moral duty, and would be a pecuniary profit, to deter and prevent him, and all others like him, from ever doing for them again a deed of such transcendent beneficence! To be consistent in this policy, they should make it a capital offence, for any man to supply the wants, relieve the toil, multiply the comforts, promote the health, prolong the life, enlighten the minds, or increase the happiness, of his fellow men.
The impolicy and inconsistency of governments, on this subject, are as palpable and enormous as their injustice. Take, for example, the governments of England and the United States. The so called statesmen of England have heretofore attempted to improve the agriculture of their country. And how did they proceed? Did they encourage chemists to prosecute their researches, and make experiments, to discover new processes or substances, by which the soil might be cheaply fertilized, and made more productive? Did they encourage ingenious men to invent new implements, by the use of which men and animals might perform more agricultural labor than they could before? Did they encourage either of these classes of inventors, by securing to them, by adequate laws, their just and perpetual property in their inventions? Such laws as would enable them to secure to themselves even one per centum of the wealth their inventions would create? No. They did nothing of this. On the contrary, they nearly outlawed their property, by giving it only the partial protection of civil laws, and that for a period of but fourteen years. This is all the encouragement they gave, to those extraordinary wealth producers, the inventors, who were willing and ready to give to the people of England an hundred pounds worth of agricultural products, in exchange for one pound in money. But, in place of thus giving any further or better encouragement to inventors, they proceeded to improve the agriculture of the nation, by laying duties of, say, fifty per centum, on an average, upon all breadstuffs imported from foreign countries; the effect of which was to enable the domestic agriculturalist to demand and obtain, of his fellow men, for all his agricultural productions, fifty per centum more than their just market value. In other words, the government virtually levied, upon the people at large, a tax equal to fifty per centum upon the true value of all the agricultural commodities produced and sold in the kingdom, and gave that enormous amount of money annually, as a gratuity, to those merely ordinary agriculturalists, whose industry was no more meritorious or productive, than the industry of those other people, who were thus taxed, or rather robbed, for their benefit. In still other words, the government, under pretence of promoting and improving the agriculture of the nation, virtually compelled the people at large to pay, to the merely ordinary agriculturalists of England, a pound and a half in money, for every pound’s worth of food produced and sold in the kingdom; while, at the same time, it discouraged, outlawed, plundered, and thus in a great measure drove out of market, those extraordinary agricultural producers, the chemists and inventors, who were anxious and ready to furnish food to the people of England, at the rate of a hundred pounds worth of food, in exchange for one pound in money.
It is quite easy to see how this system of wholesale robbery was adapted to fill the pockets of the merely ordinary agriculturalists, at the expense of men, whose industry was equally deserving and laborious with their own. But it is not so easy to see what extraordinary adaptation it had, to advance either the art, or the science, of agriculture itself. Yet this was the mode, in which the so called statesmen of England attempted to improve the agriculture of their country. And they persisted in the attempt until the fear of civil war compelled them to abandon the system. But there is still equal, and indeed vastly more, need of a civil war, (if the object cannot be otherwise attained,) to compel the government to protect the property of, and thereby encourage, those extraordinary agriculturalists, the inventors, (including chemists,) who virtually offer to feed the people of England for one per centum of the existing prices.*
The statesmen of the United States of America attempted to promote the manufacturing arts in their country, by a system of legislation, similar to that adopted in England for the promotion of agriculture. They, in a great measure, outlawed the property of, and thereby discouraged, those inventive men, who would have devised new processes in the mechanic arts, whereby great wealth could be produced by a small amount of human labor; and who, as a compensation for their inventions, would have demanded but one per centum of the wealth those inventions would create. Having done this, they levied such duties on imported manufactures, as would make it necessary for the people at large to purchase their manufactured commodities, of the domestic manufacturer, (a mere ordinary producer, whose industry was no more meritorious than that of other men generally,) at the rate of, say, fifty per centum above their true market value. In other words, they compelled the people of the country, to buy their manufactured commodities of the mere ordinary producers, and pay them one dollar and a half in money, for every dollar’s worth of goods; and at the same time outlawed, plundered, and thus discouraged, and in a great measure drove out of market, those extraordinary manufacturers, the inventors, who would have supplied the people with the same commodities, at the rate of one per centum on existing prices.* And they persisted in this policy until, as in England, the imminent danger of civil war compelled them, not to abandon the system, (for the system is not yet abandoned,) but to mitigate its severity. But a civil war is needed still more now, than then, (if the object cannot otherwise be secured,) to compel the government to protect the property of, and thereby encourage, those extraordinary manufacturers, the inventors, who in their exchanges with their fellow men, virtually give a hundred dollars worth of manufactured commodities, for one dollar in money.
The system of policy thus enforced upon the people, in England and the United States, is an example of that pretended wisdom, by which the affairs of nations are managed; and which, it is claimed, is far superior to the wisdom of justice! When will mankind learn—and compel their governments to conform to the knowledge—that justice is better policy than any scheme of robbery, that was ever devised? And that the true way of stimulating equally, justly, and to the utmost, both the physical and mental industry of all men, in the production of wealth, is simply to protect each and every man equally, in the exclusive and perpetual right to the products of his labor—whether those products be ideas, or material things?
If one tenth, (doubtless I might say one hundredth,) of those immense sums, which government has robbed from the people of England, and given, as a gratuity, to those ordinary agriculturalists, whose industry had no merit above that of other men, had been paid to chemists, who should have discovered new processes and substances for cheaply fertilizing the soil, and making it more productive; and to those mechanical inventors, who should have devised superior implements and instrumentalities for agricultural labor; who can rationally doubt, that the agriculture of England, both as a science and an art, would have been immeasurably in advance of what it is now? Or if one tenth, (I think I might say one hundredth,) of those many hundreds of millions of money, which in the United States, the government has plundered from the people, and given, as a gratuity, to those ordinary manufacturers, whose industry had no merit above that of other men, had been paid to those inventors, who should have devised new processes of manufacture, new machinery, new motive forces, and other instrumentalities for performing manufacturing labor, new articles to be manufactured, and new materials susceptible of manufacture; what rational man can doubt, that the manufacturing arts would, at this day, have been immeasurably in advance of what they now are?
But, with a considerable portion of mankind, robbery has been the favorite mode of acquiring wealth in all ages. All men desire exemption from severe toil; and the strong have usually sought to obtain it by robbing the weak. Thus strong nations have always been in the habit of making war upon weak nations, really from motives of plunder, though other motives may have been assigned. So also the rich and strong classes in a nation, have always been in the habit of combining, for the purpose of plundering the weaker classes of the same nation, by unequal and rapacious modes of taxation, and numerous other devices. In both cases the robbers seem not to have been aware, and probably have not been aware, that if all mankind were permitted to live in peace, and each individual to enjoy the fruits of his own labor, (including ideas, as well as material property,) the wealth of the world would increase at a rate that would enrich substantially all its inhabitants, incomparably faster even, than the strong can now enrich themselves, by the robbery of the weak. Take, for example, the cost, to the conquerors, of any war, ancient or modern, that has been carried on for purposes of plunder. Suppose one tenth of that cost, instead of being expended in war, had been paid to inventors; does any one doubt that, for that sum, inventions could have been produced, that would have added more to the wealth of the nation, than was gained by the conquest? And these inventions would not only have enriched the nation that produced them, but would have been also communicated to other nations. Thus many nations would have been enriched, at one tenth of the cost, at which one nation enriched itself, by the subjection and robbery of another.
At the present day, this policy of robbery is still predominant in the world; so much so, that nearly all the civilized nations of the world, keep immense armies, or navies, or both, for the double purpose of robbing other nations, and of protecting themselves against similar robbery. If one tithe of the money, that is annually paid for these purposes, by the several nations of Europe, were paid to inventors, these several nations might not only live in peace with each other, but each and all would very speedily attain to a wealth, greater than conquest ever aimed at, or conquerors ever conceived of.
To sustain the literal truth of this calculation, let us consider the wealth acquired by conquest, compared with that created by mechanical inventions. Of course, neither can be estimated with any thing like precision; but I apprehend it would be entirely within the limits of truth to say, that all the wars of Europe and America, in the last thousand years, have not brought as much net wealth to the conquerors, as has been created by the steam engine, and its subsidiary inventions, in the last ten, or even five, years. I apprehend also that all the British conquests in India, within the last hundred years, and all the oppressions practised, within that time, upon 100,000,000 of people, have not succeeded in extracting so much net wealth from that country, as has been created by the spindles and looms of England, in the last ten, or perhaps even five, years.
If these conjectures be true, or any thing like the truth, they ought to do something towards opening men’s eyes to the comparative policy of encouraging inventors, and supporting soldiers. And when it is considered that all these wars have been carried on, at the instigation and dictation of so called statesmen, we have an opportunity to judge, whether statesmen and soldiers, or inventors, are the real benefactors of mankind, and deserving of their support.
I imagine that few people stop to consider how large a proportion of the wealth, now existing in the world, is the product of labor-performing inventions. I recently saw it estimated, by a most respectable authority, that the steam engine had quadrupled the wealth of the United States. How near the truth this estimate may be, I do not venture to assert. But it is probably sufficiently near the truth for the purposes of this discussion. Now it is hardly fifty years, since the steam engine was brought to such perfection, and put into such extensive operation, in the United States, as to contribute very materially to the wealth of the country. Yet it is now said that it has quadrupled that wealth!
And how much have the people of this country ever paid to the inventors of the steam engine, in return for the immense wealth, which it has created? How much! It can hardly be said that they have paid any thing. If they have paid any thing, the amount has been so utterly contemptible, as that no one, who has any sense of shame, or any sentiment of justice, could hardly wish to see the amount put in print. But has such meanness and injustice been a wise policy for the people themselves? No. If they had paid to the inventors of the steam engine but one per centum annually of the wealth that invention was creating, they would thereby have given such a stimulus to invention, that we should doubtless, long before now, have had in use other motive forces far cheaper, safer, and better than steam. And what would have been good policy towards the inventors of the steam engine, would be good policy towards all other inventors. The amounts, that would be paid them, under a system of perpetual property, and full protection, would be, as we have before supposed, but one per centum of the wealth created by them. This one per centum is certainly but a trifle, a mere bagatelle, for the people to pay, out of the wealth created for them, and given to them, by the inventors. Yet this trifle, paid by the people, would be fortunes to those receiving it; and would give such encouragement to inventors generally, that inventions would be multiplied with a rapidity, of which we have now little conception. And the people would have the benefit of them. But so long as they refuse to pay even one per centum of the wealth produced, for the inventions they now have, it is reasonable to conclude they will have the benefit of but few new ones, compared with the number they otherwise might have.*
Let us now consider the reasons of policy, other than cheapness, against giving, to the property of inventors, that full and perpetual protection, which is given to the property of other men.
1. It is objected that the property of inventors ought not to have the protection of the criminal laws.
What foundation there is for this objection, I have never heard. And I apprehend that no reason whatever, worthy of a moment’s consideration, can be offered, why the property of inventors should not have the protection of these laws, as fully as any other property. The wilful invasion of another man’s property, from motives either of malice or gain, is a crime; and if crimes against property are to be punished at all, crimes against the property of inventors should be punished as well as others. What security would there be for material property, if the owner had no remedy for trespasses against it, except the privilege of bringing a civil suit for damages, at his own expense? Every one can see that, in that case, property would be overrun with trespassers, who were irresponsible in damages, and who would commit their trespasses with the intent of getting what they could by them, and consuming it, so as to have nothing left, with which to answer the judgments, that might be obtained against them. It would therefore be an utter farce to pretend to protect property at all, without the aid of criminal laws. It would be equivalent to granting a free license to all irresponsible trespassers. Men might as well surrender their property at once, as to think of protecting it by civil suits merely; for they would consume their property in expenses, and would get protection, only when they had no property left to be protected. Yet this is the kind of protection, and substantially all the protection, which our laws, as at present administered, give to the property of inventors. And the consequence generally is, that the expenditure of time and money, required to protect an inventor in his rights, is such as to impoverish him, and make it impossible for him to protect himself to any considerable degree, even during the brief period, for which the government professes to protect him.
Cannot the public see that such things are a discouragement to invention and inventors? And can they not see that, if they wish to encourage inventors, and have the benefit of their inventions, it is plainly for their interest to give, to the property of inventors, the same protection of the criminal laws, which is accorded to material property?
2. It is objected that inventions, if secured to their authors, become monopolies, and therefore ought not to be perpetual.
The answer to this objection is, that all property is a monopoly. The very foundation and principle of the right of property are, that each man has a right to monopolize what he produces, and what is his own. The right of all men to their property, rests on this foundation alone. Monopolies are unjust and impolitic, only when they give to one what belongs of right to others. And it is only to such monopolies that the word monopoly is usually applied. It is an abuse of the term to apply it to a man’s legitimate and rightful property. If an invention do not rightfully belong to him alone, who produced it, he of course should not be allowed to monopolize it. But if it do rightfully belong to him alone, then he has a right to monopolize it; and other men have no more right or reason to complain that he is allowed to monopolize it, than he has to complain that they are allowed to monopolize whatever is their own.
There is no more reason or justice, in applying the word monopoly, in an odious sense, to an invention, which one man has produced, and therefore rightfully owns, than there would be in applying the same term to any other wealth whatever, which one man has produced, and therefore rightfully owns. There is no resemblance at all between such monopolies, and those monopolies, which are arbitrarily created by legislatures; whereby they give to one man, or to a few men, an exclusive privilege to exercise a right, or practice an employment, which other men have naturally and justly the same right to exercise and practice. All such monopolies are plain violations of natural justice; because they take from one man a right that belongs to him, and give it to another. But an invention is the product of individual labor, and of right belongs to him who produces it; and therefore there is no injustice in saying that he alone shall have a right to it—the same right that he has to any other property lie has produced—that is, the right to exercise absolute dominion over it, and to do with it as he pleases, whether it be to keep it, sell it, or give it away.
This objection of monopoly, when applied to inventions, is mere sound without meaning. It has neither reason nor justice to sustain it. It is simply an odious name, wrongfully applied to a just and natural right, by those who want a pretext for taking a man’s property from him, and applying it to their own use.
3. A third objection is, that if inventors were allowed a perpetual property in their inventions, they would become too rich.
This objection, if good against any inventors, can be good only against a very few, in comparison with the whole number; for but a few, if any, could ever acquire inordinate wealth by their inventions. It is certainly unjust to deprive the whole of their rights, simply to guard against extravagant fortunes on the part of a few. But our laws make no distinctions of this kind. On the contrary, they condemn nearly all to indiscriminate poverty, under pretence of preventing any from accumulating immoderate wealth.
If any are to be deprived of their right to a perpetual property in their inventions, clearly it should be those few, and only those few, whose wealth would otherwise become enormous. And even those few, it would be unjust to deprive of their property, the products of their honest labor, until their fortunes had actually reached the utmost limit, to which society sees fit to allow private fortunes to go. To deprive them of their property, before their fortunes have attained the legal limit, simply through fear that they may sometime go beyond it, would be a very absurd and premature robbery.
But what right has society to set limits to the fortunes, that individuals shall acquire? Certainly it has no such right; and it attempts to exercise no such power, except in the case of inventors. To all other persons it says, go on accumulating to the extent of your ability, subject only to this restriction, that you use only honest means in acquiring. Why should any other restriction be imposed upon the accumulations of inventors, than is imposed upon the accumulations of other men? Who has such a right to be rich as an inventor? Who gives such wealth to mankind as he? Certainly, if a man, who not only produces wealth as honestly as any other man, but who produces incalculably more than other men, and who virtually gives ninety-nine per centum of it, as a gratuity, to the public, cannot be allowed to become rich, who are the men who are entitled to that privilege? Other men, who produce hardly any thing, compared with an inventor, and who, if they can avoid it, give never a dollar of their earnings to mankind, without receiving a full dollar in return, are nevertheless allowed to acquire their millions, and indeed to accumulate without restriction, so long as they accumulate honestly. But an inventor, who creates immeasurably more wealth than any other man, and who reserves but one per centum of it to himself, giving the rest to the public, must be limited by law in his acquisitions, and deprived even of that one per centum of his own earnings, lest he become too rich!
Every valuable invention ought to give certain wealth to the inventor; the more valuable the invention, the more wealth should it bring to him. The most valuable inventions, should bring great wealth to the inventors. It is not only just to the inventors, but it is for the interest of society at large, that it should be so; because the production of inventions is stimulated, substantially in the ratio of the wealth of the inventors.
But is there really any danger that, if inventors were allowed a perpetual property in their ideas, any very enormous or immoderate wealth would accumulate in their hands? There are many, and probably insuperable, obstacles to such a result. Let us look at the subject somewhat closely.
In the first place, wealth, in the aspect in which we are now, considering it, is relative. A man is rich, or poor, in proportion as he has more or less than an average share of the wealth of the world. A man, who, in England, would have been very rich, relatively with his neighbors, five hundred years ago, would now, with property of the same nominal value, as then, be very poor, relatively with his neighbors; because his neighbors have now increased so much in wealth. In judging, therefore, whether inventors would become immoderately rich, under a system of perpetual property in their inventions, we must consider what would be the general state of wealth around them, under the same system.
We are to consider, then, that under that system, (of perpetual property in inventions,) the number of inventions would be very greatly augmented, and consequently the general wealth of society astonishingly increased. And it would consequently require vastly more actual wealth, to make a man relatively rich, than it does now. This single consideration will probably be sufficient, with most minds, to reduce the bugbear of enormous wealth, (on the part of inventors,) to about half its original dimensions.
In the second place, few inventions are very long lived. By this I mean that few inventions are in practical use a very long time, before they are superseded by other inventions, that accomplish the same purposes better. A very large portion of inventions live but a few years, say, five, ten, or twenty years. I doubt if one invention in five, (of sufficient importance to be patented,) lives fifty years. And I think it doubtful if five in a hundred live a hundred years.*
Under a system of perpetuity in intellectual property, inventions would be still shorter lived than at present; because, owing to the activity given to men’s inventive faculties, one invention would be earlier superseded by another.
I think these considerations alone ought to diminish the bugbear again to one half its already reduced dimensions—that is, to one fourth its original size.
In the third place, the danger of overgrown fortunes is obviated by still another consideration, to wit, that few or no important inventions are brought to perfection by a single mind. One man brings out an invention in an imperfect state; another improves upon it; another improves upon the improvement, and so on, until the thing is perfected only by the labor of two, three, five, or ten different minds. The complete invention thus becomes the joint property of several different persons, who share in the income from it in such proportions respectively as they can agree upon. The obvious presumption is, that no single individual will ever derive a sufficient income from it, to give him a fortune immoderately, or grossly, disproportioned to the wealth of others.
I think it must be safe now to say, that the bugbear, that was at first so frightful, is no longer a thing to be seriously dreaded.
But a fourth consideration, which must absolutely annihilate the phantom, is this—that if any particular invention should be found to be a source of immoderate wealth to its possessors, that fact would be sufficient, of itself, to turn the minds of inventors, in the direction of that invention; and the result would soon be the production of one or more competing inventions, that would accomplish the same end by a different process; and either supersede the first invention altogether, or at least divide with it the profits of the business, to which it was applied.
I now take it for granted that the objection of inordinate wealth, on the part of inventors, has been fairly disposed of.
4. A fourth objection is, that if inventors were allowed a perpetual property in their inventions, their power would become dangerous to the liberties of the people at large.
This idea, although one that might naturally enough occur to an objector, will yet, on reflection, be seen to be wholly without foundation in reason. Political power depends principally upon the command of wealth; and therefore the considerations, that have just been stated, in answer to the objection of enormous wealth, on the part of inventors, are sufficient to show, that it would be the farthest thing from possibility, for an individual to monopolize enough of any one or more inventions, to give him any dangerous political power.
Another consideration, sufficient of itself to dissipate this danger, is, that the number of inventors would be great, and if any one of them should prove ambitious of a dangerous political supremacy, the power of the others would be sufficient to hold him in check.
Still another consideration is, that, in the nature of things, the people, who receive ninety-nine per centum of all the wealth created by inventions, can be in no danger from the power of inventors, who retain but one per centum of it. Every inventor, therefore, puts into the hands of the people, ninety-nine times more power than he retains in his own hands. How long a time would be requisite for him, to acquire absolute power over the people, by such a process?
A last reflection, worthy of notice, on this head, is, that inventors are not constitutionally ambitious of political power. Such a thing as a great inventor, ambitious of political power, was probably never known. Their ambition is of a far less depraved and vulgar kind. The triumphs, of which they are ambitious, are triumphs over nature, for the benefit of mankind; not over mankind, for the benefit of themselves.
Inventions, instead of tending to the enslavement of mankind, tend to their liberation, by putting wealth and power into the hands of all, and thus liberating each from his dependence upon others.
5. The fifth objection to the principle of perpetuity in intellectual property, is the objection of inconvenience.
It is no doubt an inconvenience, for a man to be under the necessity to buy an idea, when he wants it. But on the other hand, it is a great convenience to the producer of the idea, that he can command pay for it, from those who wish to use it. The inconvenience and the convenience to these parties respectively, are precisely the same, and no other, than they are to the buyer and seller of any other property. And the argument from inconvenience is just as strong, against allowing any right of property in material commodities, as it is against allowing any right of property in intellectual commodities.
But because a man has a natural right of property in every idea he originates, it is not therefore to be inferred, that every man would wish to retain his exclusive right to every idea, however unimportant, that he might originate, and demand pay of every one who wished to use it. It is only a few ideas, that have sufficient market value, to make it worth a man’s while to make them articles of merchandise. It is only a few ideas, that would find any purchasers, if a price were set on them by the owner. If a man were to set a price on merely trivial ideas, he would find no purchasers. The result would be, that a man would retain his exclusive property, only in those ideas, that would sell in the market for such prices, as would make it worth his while to sell them. And for such ideas men can as well afford to pay, as for material things of the same market value.
A few words as to the effects of the principle of perpetuity upon literature.
Literary labor is controlled by the same law as other intellectual labor—that is, the nature of the market determines, in a great measure, the character of the supply. If the law allow an author but a brief property in his works, literature will be mostly of a superficial, frivolous, and ephemeral character; such as ministers to the appetite of the hour, and finds a rapid, but temporary sale—as, for example, romances and other works, which naturally have a short life, and which it requires but little thought or labor to produce. The prevailing literature will be of this kind, for the reason that this is the only kind which can be afforded. If, on the other hand, a perpetual property be allowed, encouragement is given to the production of a widely different class of works, namely, those profound, scientific, and philosophical works, which are written, not merely for the present, but for the future; and which, instead of pandering to the frivolities, fancies, appetites, or errors of the hour, seek to supplant and correct them, by creating and supplying a demand for more valuable knowledge. These works find fewer readers at first, than the others; and the prospect of a more lasting demand for them, is the only chance their authors have of remuneration for the greater labor required for their production. Under the present system, few such works are produced at all; and those generally at great sacrifices to their authors. But if a perpetual property in them were allowed, men, competent to produce them, could afford to produce them; for the reason that their copyrights, if sold, would bring a higher present price, or, if retained, would be good estates for them to leave to their children.
These profound works, which it requires great powers, great patience, and great labor, to produce, are the only works that really do much for the progress of the race, or the advancement of knowledge among men. They are indispensable to the rapid intellectual growth of mankind. Yet, like other things, the products of human labor, they can, as a general rule, be had only for money. The greatest minds inhabit bodies, that must be fed and clothed, like the bodies of other men. The wisest men, too, as well as the less wise, have families whose wants must be supplied. If these wants cannot be supplied by authorship, there is no alternative for these men, but to engage in some of the ordinary avocations of society. The consequence is, that many of the greatest minds, those, who ought to do, and who, under the principle of perpetuity in intellectual property, would do, much for the permanent enlightenment, and the lasting intellectual advancement of mankind, are now, from necessity, occupied in pursuits, for which smaller minds are amply competent—such as the common routine of professional and political life—in which pursuits, they passively adopt, act upon, and thereby promulgate, at best, only such common knowledge, and with it such common ignorance, as the public demand calls for in those labors. This they do, simply because the laws deprive them of the natural and just rewards of those higher labors, for which their capacities and their aspirations naturally qualify them. And they consequently pass through the world, doing little or nothing for its permanent welfare; and really living upon, and assisting to perpetuate, the ignorance, follies, crimes, and sufferings of mankind, solely because the laws virtually forbid them to live by removing them.
It would be easy to follow out this idea, and show more in detail what effect the perpetuity of intellectual property would have upon the progress of knowledge; but the principle is so self-evident, that it can hardly need any further illustration.
No objection can be made to the perpetuity of literary property, on the ground that authors would become extravagantly rich. The great competition among themselves; the short life, which most works would have; and the slow sale of those having a longer life, would all conspire to make it impossible for authors to acquire great wealth. In this respect they would differ from inventors.
Enough has probably now been said, to show that authors will enlighten, and inventors enrich, mankind, if they can but be paid for it, and not otherwise.
Manifestly it cannot be for the interest of mankind, to starve and discourage authors and inventors, if science and art, like all other marketable commodities, are really produced just in proportion to the demand for them, and the prices they bear in the market. Mankind have abundant need of all the knowledge, and all the wealth, which authors and inventors can furnish them. And they can certainly afford to pay for them, at the low prices, at which knowledge is offered by authors, and wealth by inventors; for there are no other means by which such knowledge and such wealth can be obtained so cheaply. Why, then, do not mankind purchase and pay for them at these prices, instead of striving to live upon such a supply only, as they can obtain by niggardly purchases, and dishonest plunder? There is certainly as little sound economy, as sound morality, in the course they pursue on this subject. Why, then, do they continue in it? My own opinion is this.
It is not that mankind at large are so wilfully dishonest, as to wish to deprive authors and inventors, any more than other men, of the fruits of their labors. It is contrary to nature, that mankind at large should be, either so unjust, or so ungenerous, to their greatest benefactors. Neither is it because they are wilfully ignorant of their own true interests in the matter; for it is contrary to nature that any man, honest, or dishonest, should be wilfully ignorant of his own true interests. But it is because they are deceived, both as to their own interests, and as to the just rights of authors and inventors, by those who are interested to deceive them.
Who, then, are the parties, who are interested to deceive the people at large, as to the true interests of the latter, and as to the just rights of authors and inventors? There are at least three classes. First, the whole class of pirates, who have a direct and powerful pecuniary interest, in plundering authors and inventors; because they thereby put into their own pockets some portion, at least, of that wealth, which would otherwise go to the authors and inventors themselves. Secondly, men ambitious of the reputation and influence of wealth, who fear that their wealth may be eclipsed by the wealth of inventors. Thirdly, political men, ambitious of intellectual reputations, who fear that their own would be eclipsed, as they really would be, by the reputations of both authors and inventors. The services rendered to mankind by great authors, and great inventors, are so incomparably superior, in brilliancy, permanency, and value, to any that can be performed by political men, (with possibly here and there a rare exception,) that it is not to be expected that the latter, with whom ambition is a ruling passion, should look with favor on such rivals as the former.
There are, then, three classes of men, who have a special and selfish interest to decry the rights of authors and inventors; and to deceive the people at large in regard to them. And they do it by such bugbears and sophistry, as have been exposed in the preceding pages. The influence of the two latter classes is especially powerful; for they have a direct, and nearly absolute, control over legislation. And it is probably owing to the jealousy of these two classes, more than to all other causes, that the rights of authors and inventors have not been already acknowledged. The nobility of England, for example, whose wealth and power are hereditary, and founded on no personal merit or service, compose one branch of the legislative power of England, and have great influence in the election and control of the other; and they doubtless have sagacity enough to see, that the principle of perpetuity in intellectual property, would soon raise up a generation of authors and inventors, the latter of whom would rival them in wealth, and both of whom would wholly eclipse them in deeds commanding public admiration and gratitude; and both of whom also would contribute powerfully, and probably irresistibly, to prostrate their usurped and iniquitous political power. It is not therefore to be expected that the House of Lords, or those whom they can control in the House of Commons, will ever legislate for the principle of perpetuity in intellectual property. And the principle may perhaps triumph, in England, only on the ruins of existing political institutions. On the continent of Europe, there are obstacles to be overcome, in the jealousies of wealth, and of hereditary and tyrannical rulers, of a similar nature to those in England. In the United States, the obstacles are not so palpable, and probably not so great. But they are nevertheless such as are not to be despised. In all countries, they are doubtless such, as can be overcome, only by disseminating widely among the people the true principles of law, and the true principles of political economy, applicable to the question.
THE COMMON LAW OF ENGLAND. (VOL. I)
THE COMMON LAW OF ENGLAND RELATIVE TO INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.
[* ] Millar vs. Taylor, 4 Burrows 2364—5.
[* ] Donaldson vs. Becket, 17 Parliamentary Hist. 991.
[* ] When it is said, in chapter first, page 19, that “an author sells his ideas in his volumes,” that “an editor sells his in his sheets,” &c., it is not meant that they necessarily sold an entire and unqualified right of property in their ideas; but only a partial or qualified right, viz.: a right to the mental possession and mental enjoyment of them. Whether the purchaser acquires any further right of property than this, in the ideas described in the volumes and papers, will depend on the principles laid down in this chapter.
[* ] It is perhaps worthy of notice, in this connexion, that a man can acquire, from a written description, the same mental possession of houses and lands, that he can of ideas. That is, he can acquire the same knowledge of houses and lands, that he can of ideas; and this knowledge of ideas is all the possession of them that he can, in any way, acquire. It would seem, therefore, that if this merely mental possession of things, which is acquired by reading about them, were of any importance, in law, it ought to have the same importance and effect, in the case of houses and lands, as in the case of ideas.
[* ] I shall assume in this chapter, for purposes of argument, that not more than one per centum of the wealth produced by labor-performing inventions, goes into the pockets of the inventors; or would go into their pockets, under a system of perpetual property, on their part, in their inventions. How near the truth this estimate may be, others can judge as well as myself. It is obviously sufficiently near the truth for the purposes of fair illustration.
[* ] I say the inventors, as a class, virtually offer to feed the people of England at one per centum upon existing prices, because I assume that each individual inventor asks, for his invention, not more than one per centum of the agricultural wealth it produces.
[* ] I say the inventors offer to supply the people with manufactured commodities, at the rate of one per centum on existing prices, because I assume, as before, that inventors would sell the use of their inventions, for one per centum of the wealth, which those inventions would create.
[* ] A day or two before handing this chapter to the printer, my eye fell upon the following article, in the New York Tribune, of Sept. 15, 1854, which fairly illustrates the wretched economy of the imperfect protection afforded to inventors. It would appear, from this article, that if the rights of inventors had been justly protected in 1824, the world would have had the benefit of an improved reaping machine, some twenty years before it did have it. If any man can tell how many thousands of millions of dollars worth of human labor would have been saved, taking the civilized world together, during those twenty years, by the use of such a machine, he will perhaps be able to form some tolerable estimate of the net profit, which the world has realized, from its ignorance, meanness, and dishonesty, in practically denying that Mr. May had any right of property in his invention. And when the calculator shall have ascertained how much clear gain the world has thus made, by keeping back, for twenty years, the use of the reaping machine, he will perhaps be able to make some conjectural computation, (if he can find figures in which to write it,) of the aggregate loss it has suffered from keeping back, in like manner, the use of, and perhaps forever suppressing, thousands, and tens of thousands, of other important inventions, which it might have had the use of during the same period, and for ages before, if its legislation had but adopted the principles of common honesty, instead of open knavery, towards inventors.
The editor of the Tribune has acquired a high reputation as a political economist, by his unwearied advocacy of restrictions on trade, as the grand instrumentality for stimulating production. Is there no sarcasm on the political economy of the age, in the fact, that such a man should draw no more important Inferences, from the incident he relates, than the merely personal one, that the Messrs. May, father and son, lost the chance of “an ample independence for them both;” and the additional one, that somebody ought to “write that most interesting and instructive of all unwritten books—the Romance and Reality of Invention,” “not only as a deserved memento of world-acknowledged merit, due as well to living as to dead, but as a stimulant to the hearts and labors of a class existing every where around us?” Strange indeed is it, that it should never occur to him that there could be any more fitting “memento of acknowledged merit,” nor any more proper or necessary “stimulant to the hearts and labors” of inventors, than a book, descriptive of their struggles and adversities. Yet, ludicrous, if not heartless and insulting, as are these inferences of the editor of the Tribune, it should be mentioned, that he is probably in advance of most public men, both in his sympathies and principles, in behalf of inventors. I submit, however, that it is not in entirely good taste for one, whose own ideas are no farther advanced on this subject, to talk quite so contemptuously of those “boorish minds,” who “refused to be convinced” by “demonstration,” and who, in its infancy, could even “nickname” a valuable invention as “Harvey’s Folly,” and “Harvey’s Great Amazement.”
“THE VICISSITUDES OF INVENTORS.
“The private history of many inventions, if fully written out, would form a volume of abundant dimensions. Its chapters would unfold a world of practical romance; the struggles of ingenious poverty, which no discouragement could paralyze; the undying perseverance of minds conscious of colossal strength; the hopes, the fears, the bitter disappointments of commanding genius; the triumphs that have sometimes crowned the labors of these patient toilers in their solitary work-shops; the brilliant recompense of mere luck or accident; the villany of confidential friends—in fact a measureless catalogue of contingencies, which seem peculiar to inventors as a class. Authors—of books only—have had their calamities collected and amplified with a touching pathos. The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties, gathered up into a volume too small to embody more than a meagre fraction of its heart-depressing experiences, has fixed the attention and touched the sympathies of kindred minds, wherever its collected records have become known. Some careful hand should also gather up the Vicissitudes of Inventors, not only as a deserved memento of world-acknowledged merit, due as well to living as to dead, but as a stimulant to the hearts and labors of a class existing everywhere around us, and enlarging as the circle of the arts and sciences extends.
“Let us take a solitary instance, unknown to fame, but illustrative of the common difficulties which obstruct the path of poor and ingenious men. The whole world has become familiar with the great American Reaper, which the London Exhibition first introduced to European observation. Yet as long ago as 1824, a young boy in Washington County, New York—Harvey May, by name—conceived the idea of a machine for similar purposes. He tried his first experiment with shears, the blades of which were so curved as to present nearly the same angles of edge, from heel to point, while cutting. The following year he tried again, using a reel and sickle edge, but returned to the vibrating edges. Continuing these trials, amid a world of difficulties and opposition, the sneers and ridicule of a community of boorish minds, he at last succeeded completely. His crudely-built machine—for no one awarded him the cheap aid of sympathetic encouragement, much less practical mechanical help—extended into the grain to the right, and was mounted on the hind wheels of his father’s lumber-waggon. With large wheels and simple geering, a single horse drew the inventor and his brother on the machine, and it actually cut heavy rye at the rate of an acre an hour. Those who looked on and witnessed its marvellous performance, refused to be convinced. The science of demonstration was unknown to their vocabulary. His neighbors did condescend to grant that the whole affair was quite original, but complimented him by calling it ‘Harvey’s Folly.’ Further trials, however, only rendered the machine even more perfect, whereupon it received the further nickname of ‘Harvey’s Great Amazement.’ Mr. May, in writing recently of this promising germ of what has since unfolded into a great industrial improvement, says, with touching simplicity, that he intended taking out a patent, but ‘My father refused to help me in this; for he said the patent laws were only calculated to draw men into ruinous lawsuits. I tried to get help from others, but all refused to help me when they learned my father’s views on the patent laws.’ Thus, with the evidence of success before him, this youthful genius was compelled to see his great invention perish. Other inventors in the same prolific field, have gathered in abundant harvests of gold from the profits of their reapers. Had the over-cautious father stimulated, with judicious sympathy and advice, the genius of his promising son, the product would in all probability have been an ample independence for them both.
“We might illustrate the same course of thought by a thousand other instances equally touching, but the suggestion is sufficient. Who will write that most interesting and instructive of all unwritten books—the Romance and Reality of Invention?”
[* ] I have no special knowledge on the point mentioned in the text, and only give my opinion as a matter of conjecture.