Words by c.z.robertson

Thomas Jefferson on Intellectual Property

1999-08-30 01:00:00 UTC

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself, but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breath, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Those were words of Thomas Jefferson. It seems interesting to me that he thought of information flow as being impossible to restrict, since it is obviously very much restricted today. It has been suggested by some (including myself, not so long ago) that the internet would make intellectual property law impossible to enforce. If Jefferson could be wrong about such things, perhaps we should take this as a warning.