One of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known contributions to the republic was as first chief of the U.S. Patent Office.
Known for his own ingenious inventions—like a revolving bookcase and a duplicator he called the “polygraph” that was the eighteenth century version of a Xerox machine--in 1790 he was tasked with creating a system that would encourage the development of useful contraptions.
For Jefferson, the emphasis was on “useful.” He was less interested in protecting an abstract right to “intellectual property” than in fostering a climate where good ideas could flourish. Public utility trumped private gain.
In a letter he wrote in 1813 to Isaac McPherson, Jefferson ruminated that “It has been pretended by some, (and in England especially,) that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But … 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.”
Ideas were essentially free, self-propagating, and could not be restrained once brought to birth.
So Jefferson’s own inventions, like an improved plow mathematically designed to offer least resistance in breaking through the soil, were never patented. He was less motivated by hope for riches than by desire to benefit humanity.
Today most patents runs twenty years, roughly a generation, while copyrights can last a hundred years or longer (the author’s lifetime plus fifty years). Many would say that’s too long to keep cheap generic drugs off the market, or to give an author or musician a monopoly on their creations.
Thomas Jefferson would agree. Patent laws should create enough profit incentive to spur inventors. But when they impoverish the many to enrich the few, that’s just patent nonsense.
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