Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI.: the right of property in ideas. - Social Statics
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CHAPTER XI.: the right of property in ideas. - Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 
Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851).
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the right of property in ideas.
It is tolerably self-evident that no violation of the law of equal freedom is committed in the acquisition of knowledge—that knowledge, at least, which is open to all. A man may read, hear, and observe, to as great an extent as he pleases, without in the least diminishing the liberty of others to do the like—in fact, without affecting the condition of others in any way. It is clear, too, that the knowledge thus obtained may be digested, re-organized, or combined afresh, and new knowledge educed from it by its possessor, without the rights of his fellows being thereby trespassed upon. And it is further manifest, that the moral law permits a man who has by his intellectual labour obtained such new knowledge, to keep it for his own exclusive use, or claim it as his private property. He who does this, in no degree exceeds the prescribed limits of individual freedom. He abridges no one’s liberty of action. Every other person retains as much scope for thought and deed as before. And each is free to acquire the same facts—to elaborate from them, if he can, the same new ideas—and in a similar manner employ those new ideas for his private advantage. Seeing, therefore, that a man may claim the exclusive use of his original ideas without overstepping the boundaries of equal freedom, it follows that he has a right so to claim them; or, in other words, such ideas are his property.
Of course the argument used in the last chapter to show that material property cannot be taken from its possessor without a breach of the law, is applicable to property of this kind also.
That a man’s right to the produce of his brain is equally valid with his right to the produce of his hands, is a fact which has yet obtained but a very imperfect recognition. It is true that we have patent laws, a law of copyright, and acts for the registration of designs; but these, or at any rate two of them, have been enacted not so much in obedience to the dictates of justice, as in deference to the suggestions of trade policy.—A patent is not a thing which can be claimed as a right,—we are told by legal authorities, but is intended to—act as a stimulus to industry and talent.—It is not because the piracy of patterns would be wrong that legislators forbid it, but because they wish to afford—encouragement to manufactures.—Similar also are the current opinions. Measures of this nature are commonly considered by the public as giving to inventors a certain—privilege,—a—reward,—a sort of modified—monopoly.—It is on the ground of commercial statesmanship that they are approved; and not as being necessary for the administration of justice.
The prevalence of such a belief is by no means creditable to the national conscience, and indicates a sad bluntness of moral feeling. To think that the profits which a speculator makes by a rise in the share-market, should be recognised as legally and equitably his property, and yet that some new combination of ideas, which it may have cost an ingenious man years of application to complete, cannot be—claimed as a right—by that man! To think that a sinecurist should be held to have a—vested interest—in his office, and a just title to compensation if it is abolished, and yet that an invention over which no end of mental toil has been spent, and on which the poor mechanic has laid out perhaps his last sixpence—an invention which he has completed entirely by his own labour and with his own materials—has wrought, as it were, out of the very substance of his own mind—should not be acknowledged as his property! To think that his title to it should be admitted merely as a matter of convenience—admitted even then only on payment of some £400—and, after all, quashed on the most trifling pretences! What a thick-skinned perception of justice does this show! What a want of ability to appreciate matters at all removed beyond the sphere of the external senses! One would think that equity afforded no guidance beyond transactions in material things—weights, measures, and money. Let a shop-boy take from his master’s till a visible, tangible, ponderable sovereign, and all can see that the rights of ownership have been violated. Yet those who exclaim with such indignant virtue against theft, will purchase a pirated edition of a book, without any qualms of conscience concerning the receipt of stolen goods. Dishonesty, when shown in house-breaking or sheep-stealing, is held up to eternal infamy, and those convicted of it are for ever excluded from society; but the manufacturer who steals his foreman’s improved plan for the spinning of cotton, or the building of steam engines, continues to be held in high respect. The law is active enough in apprehending the urchin who may have deprived some comfortable citizen of his pocket-handkerchief, and will deal with the young scapegrace at the public expense; but there is no redress for the poverty-stricken schemer who is robbed by some wealthy scamp of that which formed the sole hope of his life. Strong illustrations these of the fact, that the moral sense, when unguided by systematic deduction, fails to find its way through the labyrinth of confused opinion, to a correct code of duty.
As already remarked, it is a common notion, and one more especially pervading the operative classes, that the exclusive use by its discoverer of any new or improved mode of production, is a species of monopoly, in the sense in which that word is conventionally used. To let a man have the entire benefit accruing from the employment of some more efficient machine, or better process invented by him; and to allow no other person to adopt and apply for his own advantage the same plan, they hold to be an injustice. Nor are there wanting philanthropic and even thinking men, who consider that the valuable ideas originated by individuals—ideas which may be of great national advantage—should be taken out of private hands and thrown open to the public at large.
—And pray, gentlemen,—an inventor might fairly reply,—why may not I make the same proposal respecting your goods and chattels, your clothing, your houses, your railway shares, and your money in the funds? If you are right in the interpretation you give to the term ‘monopoly,’ I do not see why that term should not be applied to the coats upon your backs and the provisions on your dinner tables. With equal reason I might argue that you unjustly ‘monopolize’ your furniture, and that you ought not in equity to have the ‘exclusive use’ of so many apartments. If ‘national advantage’ is to be the supreme rule, why should we not appropriate your wealth, and the wealth of others like you, to the liquidation of the state debt? True, as you say, you came honestly by all this property: but so did I by my invention. True, as you say, this capital, on the interest of which you subsist, was acquired by years of toil—is the reward of persevering industry: well, I may say the like of this machine. Whilst you were gathering profits, I was collecting ideas; the time you spent in conning the prices current, was employed by me in studying mechanics; your speculations in new articles of merchandise, answer to my experiments, many of which were costly and fruitless; when you were writing out your accounts, I was making drawings; and the same perseverance, patience, thought, and toil, which enabled you to make a fortune, have enabled me to complete my invention. Like your wealth, it represents so much accumulated labour; and I am living upon the profits it produces me, just as you are living upon the interest of your invested savings. Beware, then, how you question my claim. If I am a monopolist, so also are you; so also is every man. If I have no right to these products of my brain, neither have you to those of your hands: no one can become the sole owner of any article whatever; and ‘all property is robbery.’—
They fall into a serious error, who suppose that the exclusive right assumed by a discoverer, is something taken from the public. He who in any way increases the powers of production, is seen by all, save a few insane Luddites, to be a general benefactor who gives rather than takes. The successful inventor makes a further conquest over nature. By him the laws of matter are rendered still more subservient to the wants of mankind. He economises labour—helps to emancipate men from their slavery to the needs of the body—harnesses a new power to the car of human happiness. He cannot, if he would, prevent society from largely participating in his good fortune. Before he can realize any benefit from his new process or apparatus, he must first confer a benefit on his fellow men—must either offer them a better article at the price usually charged, or the same article at a less price. If he fails to do this, his invention is a dead letter; if he does it, he makes society a partner in the new mine of wealth he has opened. For all the exertion he has had in subjugating a previously unknown region of nature, he simply asks an extra proportion of the fruits. The rest of mankind unavoidably come in for the main advantage—will in a short time have the whole. Meanwhile, they cannot without injustice disregard his claims.
Let us remember, too, that in this, as in other cases, disobedience to the moral law is ultimately detrimental to all parties—to those who infringe the rights of the individual as well as to the individual himself. It is a well-proved fact, that that insecurity of material property which results from general dishonesty, inevitably reacts to the punishment of all. The rationale of this is obvious. Industrial energy diminishes just in proportion to the uncertainty of its reward. Those who do not know that they shall reap will not sow. Instead of employing it in business, capitalists hoard what they possess, because productive investments are dangerous. Hence arises a universal straitness of means. Every enterprise is crippled by want of confidence. And from general distrust spring general discouragement, apathy, idleness, poverty, and their attendant miseries, involving alike all grades of men. Similar in kind, and less only in degree, is the curse attendant upon insecurity of property in ideas. Just in so far as the benefits likely to accrue to the inventor are precarious, will he be deterred from carrying out his plans.—If,—thinks he to himself,—others are to enjoy the fruits of these wearisome studies and these numberless experiments, why should I continue them? If, in addition to all the possibilities of failure in the scheme itself, all the time, trouble, and expense of my investigations, all the chances of destruction to my claim by disclosure of the plan, all the heavy costs attendant upon obtaining legal protection, I am liable to be deprived of my right by any scoundrel who may infringe it in the expectation that I shall not have money or madness enough to institute a chancery suit against him, I had better abandon the project at once.—And although such reflections may often fail to extinguish the sanguine hopes of an inventor—although he may still prosecute his scheme to the end, regardless of all risks, yet after having once suffered the losses which ten to one society will inflict upon him, he will take good care never again to enter upon a similar undertaking. Whatever other ideas he may then or subsequently entertain—some of them most likely valuable ones—will remain undeveloped and probably die with him. Did mankind know the many important discoveries which the ingenious are prevented from giving to the world by the cost of obtaining legal protection, or by the distrust of that protection if obtained—were people duly to appreciate the consequent check put upon the development of the means of production—and could they properly estimate the loss thereby entailed upon themselves, they would begin to see that the recognition of the right of property in ideas, is only less important than the recognition of the right of property in goods.
In consequence of the probability, or perhaps we may say the certainty, that the causes leading to the evolution of a new idea in our mind, will eventually produce a like result in some other mind, the claim above set forth must not be admitted without limitation. Many have remarked the tendency that exists for an important invention or discovery to be made by independent investigators nearly at the same time. There is nothing really mysterious in this. A certain state of knowledge, a recent advancement in science, the occurrence of some new social want,—these form the conditions under which minds of similar characters are stimulated to like trains of thought, ending as they are prone to do in the same result. Such being the fact, there arises a qualification to the right of property in ideas, which it seems difficult and even impossible to specify definitely. The laws of patent and copyright, express this qualification by confining the inventor’s or author’s privilege within a certain term of years. But in what way the length of that term may be found with correctness there is no saying. In the mean time, as already pointed out (p. 110), such a difficulty does not in the least militate against the right itself.