Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: THE AUTHOR'S SYSTEM CANNOT BE TAXED, EITHER BY THE UNITED STATES, OR THE STATES. - The Shorter Works and Pamphlets of Lysander Spooner, Vol. 2 (1862-1884)
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CHAPTER III.: THE AUTHOR’S SYSTEM CANNOT BE TAXED, EITHER BY THE UNITED STATES, OR THE STATES. - Lysander Spooner, The Shorter Works and Pamphlets of Lysander Spooner, Vol. 2 (1862-1884) 
The Shorter Works and Pamphlets of Lysander Spooner, vol. 2 (1862-1884) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).
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THE AUTHOR’S SYSTEM CANNOT BE TAXED, EITHER BY THE UNITED STATES, OR THE STATES.
Neither the United States, nor the States, can tax the author’s system of banking, consistently with the theory which the courts hold in regard to patents and copyrights.
That theory is, that a patent or copyright, guaranteeing to an inventor or author, and his heirs and assigns, the free and exclusive right to use his invention, or publish his book, for a term of years, is the price which the United States government, as agent for the whole people, pays an inventor or author for his invention or book, for the benefit of the public.*
The courts hold that the reasons for granting patents and copyrights are these, namely, that an inventor has in his mind an invention, or an author has in his mind a book, which, it is supposed, may be of value to the public; but that neither the inventor nor the author has any sufficient inducement to make his invention or book known, unless he can derive some pecuniary advantage from it. The United States, therefore, says to the inventor: If you will secure your invention to the use of the public, by putting upon the government records such a description of it, and of the manner of using it, as that the public will be able, from your description, to make and use your machine, in defiance of you, (after your patent shall have expired,) the government will, as a compensation for your so doing, secure to you, and your heirs and assigns, the free and exclusive use of the invention for a given number of years. When, therefore, the inventor has put upon the government records such a description of his invention, and of the manner of using it, as the government stipulates for, the bargain is complete, and the faith of the government is pledged, that he shall have the free and exclusive use of his invention for the term of years agreed on.
The United States says also to the author: If you will secure to the public the right to your book, by depositing a copy with the government, so that it may be republished in defiance of you, (after your copyright term shall have expired,) the government will secure to you, and your heirs and assigns, the free and exclusive right to publish and sell it for a term of years. When, therefore, the author has deposited with the government a copy of his book, in pursuance of this stipulation on the part of the United States, the contract is complete, and the faith of the government is pledged, that he shall have the free and exclusive right to publish his book for the term of years agreed on.
The amount of these transactions—according to the theory of the courts—is, that the government buys an author’s or inventor’s ideas, and contracts to give him, as compensation for them, a certain exclusive use of them for a term of years.
The courts hold that the general government, on behalf of the whole country, makes this contract with authors and inventors; being specially authorized to do so by the Constitution of the United States.
On this theory, the government cannot consistently tax, either the ideas themselves, or the use of them. It cannot consistently tax the ideas themselves, as property, for they are supposed to be the property of the United States; and for the government to tax them, as property, would be taxing its own property; and would be as absurd as it would be to tax the National Capitol, or any other property of the government. It cannot consistently tax the author or inventor for his exclusive use of the ideas; for that exclusive use is the price which the government agrees to pay him for his ideas; and is, therefore, a debt, which it owes him. It, therefore, can no more consistently tax him for receiving this pay for his ideas, than it can tax any body else for receiving his pay for services rendered, or property sold, or money lent, to the government.
This price, be it observed, which the United States government agrees to pay, is not paid in full, until the patent or copyright term has expired; because the price itself consists in the exclusive use, or in the government protection to the exclusive use, of the invention or book, for that term. If, now, the government can tax this price, before it is fully paid, it really taxes a debt which it owes. And for the government to tax a debt, which it owes, is really keeping back a part of the debt.
In other words, if, before the inventor or author shall have had the free and exclusive use of his invention or book secured to him for the full term stipulated for, the general government can tax this free and exclusive use, which, for a valuable consideration paid to the United States, by the author or inventor, has been guaranteed to him, it can wholly or partially invalidate the contract made with him. Such a tax is virtually withholding, or keeping back, or taking back, a part of the price, which the United States, on behalf of the whole country, had agreed to pay him. If the use of the invention or book can be taxed to the amount of one per cent., ten per cent., fifty per cent., or one hundred per cent., of its value, by the very government that promised to secure the use to him, then one per cent., ten per cent., fifty per cent., or one hundred per cent., of the price, agreed to be paid to him, is taken back, or virtually withheld from him, by the very party that promised to pay it to him.
Such a tax, according to the theory of the courts, would be a tax upon a debt, which the United States owes the author or inventor. And a right, on the part of the United States, to impose such a tax, would be as absurd, and as inconsistent with the obligation of a debt, as would be the right of any other debtor, to tax his creditor for the debt due by the former to the latter. If all debtors could tax their creditors at pleasure for the debts due by the former to the latter, the payment of debts would be a very easy matter. And if the United States can tax, at pleasure, all the debts they owe, the public debt may legally, and consistently with the public faith, be very easily paid.
When the United States government voluntarily becomes a debtor, by purchasing something valuable, and agreeing to pay for it at a future time, it voluntarily puts itself in the position of any and all other debtors. That is, it agrees to pay the amount in full; and not merely to pay all except what it may choose to withhold, or take back, under the name of taxation. A promise of this latter kind would amount to no promise at all.
Suppose the United States government (as agent for the whole country) were to purchase, of an individual, supplies for the United States army; and were to give him a contract to pay him in six months. And suppose that, before paying this debt, the government should tax it, to the amount of one hundred per cent., in the hands of this creditor of the United States. How much would this creditor have coming to him when the contract should be due? Or how much would he realize for the supplies he had furnished, and taken the government’s contract for? Nothing. Yet a tax of one per cent. would be just as absurd in principle, and just as inconsistent with the obligation of a debt, as would be a tax of one hundred per cent. Such taxation would clearly be withholding a part of the debt, which the government owed him, and had agreed to pay him, for value received. The government might just as well have seized the supplies, without pretending to make any compensation at all, as to pretend to buy them, promise to pay for them, and then tax that debt or promise before it is fulfilled. It is for this reason, that the general government cannot, without a breach of faith, tax any portion of the debt it is now contracting. Such a tax would really be a mode of withholding payment of money it had agreed to pay. And for the same reason the general government cannot, consistently with the theory of the courts in regard to patents and copyrights, tax them, or the use of them. Such taxation, according to the theory of the courts, would be withholding a part of the price, which the general government, on behalf of the whole country, had agreed to pay for books and inventions.
And what the general government cannot, consistently with the public faith, do, in the way of taxing patents and copyrights, the States, counties, cities, and towns cannot consistently do; because any contract, made by the general government, is made for and on behalf of the whole country; and States, counties, cities, and towns are as much bound by it, as is the general government itself.
If States, counties, cities, and towns could tax patents and copyrights, they could wholly or partially, (according to the extent of the tax,) defeat the value of the contracts, which the United States, on behalf of the whole country, makes with authors and inventors.
The subscriber is not aware that inventions and copyrights, or the use of inventions or copyrights, have ever been taxed, either in this country, or in any other, until the recent tax upon telegraphic messages. And this tax, according to the theory of the courts, ought clearly to be held illegal, or at least inconsistent with the public faith.
The country has too great an interest in “the progress of science and useful arts,” to tolerate Congress, or the State governments, in breaking faith with authors and inventors, by robbing them, either directly or indirectly, of the free and exclusive right to “their writings and discoveries” for the term of years that was stipulated for, when, relying upon the public faith, they sold their ideas to the government, (as they virtually did when they put their books and inventions beyond their own control, by putting them upon the government records.)*
For the reasons now given, the subscriber assumes that the use of his system of banking will never be taxed, either by the United States, or the States.
This freedom from taxation is perfectly just, for still another reason, namely, that the land, which constitutes the banking capital under the author’s system, is liable to be taxed, as land, at its true value, equally with all other land. The fact that it is used as banking capital, is no reason for taxing it beyond its true value, when all other land is equally free to be used as banking capital, if the owners shall so choose.
This exemption from taxation is likely to be an important matter for many years, if not forever; and is sufficient, of itself, to challenge the consideration of bankers.
[* ] I have before said that I do not believe that the theory of the courts is the true one. But it is the one least favorable to the rights of authors and inventors; and is likely to prevail, for the present at least, if not forever. I think the true theory is, that authors and inventors have the same natural and common law right of property in their ideas, the products of their labor, that other men have in material things, the products of their labor; and that government is as much bound to protect the former as the latter. If this theory were to prevail, authors and inventors could very well afford to have their property in ideas taxed; because their property would not only be protected by the criminal law, but it would be protected in perpetuity, like other property. But now the government virtually says to authors and inventors, “Sell your ideas to the government for such price as the government chooses to pay, or you shall have no protection at all for your rights in them.” Saying this, and having its offer accepted, it clearly cannot, in good faith, tax the price which it has promised to pay.
[* ] We shall see, in the next section, that the Supreme Court of the United States have expressly said that patent rights cannot be taxed by the States. And if the States cannot tax patent rights, they cannot tax copyrights, for both are of the same nature intrinsically, and both are put upon the same basis by the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States has also expressed the opinion that they are of the same nature. (Wheaton et al, vs. Peters et al. 8 Peters’ Reports, 657-8.)