Ben Franklin on Patents

In which he provides a Selfless model for Sharing and Cooperation; Inspires us with his Generosity; and Lends Moral Authority to the Principles of Free Culture…

I wasn’t surprised to learn of Ben’s position on patents:

Franklin Stove, from National Park Service

In order of time, I should have mentioned before, that having, in 1742, invented an open stove for the better warming of rooms, and at the same time saving fuel, as the fresh air admitted was warmed in entering, I made a present of the model to Mr. Robert Grace, one of my early friends, who, having an iron-furnace, found the casting of the plates for these stoves a profitable thing, as they were growing in demand. To promote that demand, I wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled “An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated,” etc. This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov’r. Thomas was so pleas’d with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin’d it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

An ironmonger in London however, assuming a good deal of my pamphlet, and working it up into his own, and making some small changes in the machine, which rather hurt its operation, got a patent for it there, and made, as I was told, a little fortune by it. And this is not the only instance of patents taken out for my inventions by others, tho’ not always with the same success, which I never contested, as having no desire of profiting by patents myself, and hating disputes. The use of these fireplaces in very many houses, both of this and the neighbouring colonies, has been, and is, a great saving of wood to the inhabitants.

— Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Music to my ears. I can imagine what Ben would think about restricting access to things that have zero marginal cost, where duplication costs nothing.

Reading about free software specifically and free culture in general causes a dangerous uptick in my idealism index. Idealism in the sense of hoping and even believing that we can all get along. (Somehow. Someday.) That we can help each other. I think I had a healthy share of idealism growing up but gradually over the years I’ve addressed this vulnerability by developing an outer shell of jaded cynicism. It’s much more comforting to have no hope than to have hopes that can be crushed. However, there is a good chance with this strategy that your heart will shrink a couple of sizes.

But then I read essays by Richard Stallman, listen to speeches by Eben Moglen, and read and listen to many other hopeful voices, and I start to see something better. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. Which of course is dangerous. You leave yourself open to ridicule if you believe. You might be dismissed as being naive. To which of course we should say, “So what?” I want to believe that we can do better.

I went looking for an excerpt from a Moglen speech and found it along with some additional interesting commentary by Benjamin Mako Hill:

I believe that access to information is an ethical issue.

This is where I invoke Eben Moglen because he says it a lot better
than I can. There’s a great talk Eben Moglen gave that’s based around his dotCommunist Manifesto. Moglen says:

The great moral question of the twenty-first century is: If all knowledge, all culture, all art, all useful information, can be costlessly given to everyone at the same price that it is given to
anyone — if everyone can have everything, everywhere, all the time, why is it ever moral to exclude anyone from anything?

If you could make lamb chops in endless numbers by the mere pressing of a button, there would be no moral argument for hunger ever, anywhere.

I see no system of moral philosophy generated by the economy of the past that could evolve a principle to explain the moral legitimacy of denial in the presence of infinite profusion.

Free access to information is essential because the alternative is unethical and unacceptable. Replacing a system built on the unjust restriction of knowledge may not — and probably will not — be easy or smooth and that doesn’t matter. Migrating away from other unjust systems of the past — slavery, child labor, exploitation of all sorts [3] — is not always, or often, easy and smooth. Sacrifices are made.

Where sustainable solutions for the production of knowledge are not obvious, we — as producers and consumers — have a moral responsibility to be creative and to create them.

[3] I don’t intend to imply that child labor or slavery and copyright are moral equivalents. I’m simply stating that their abolition was a moral imperative in the face of strong and highly ingrained economic considerations.

Benjamin Mako Hill, In Defense of Free Culture

Whoa. Heady stuff! And I just love it. I can believe in this as a principle to live by. Ideas and knowledge can’t be owned — not once they’ve been expressed.

And what a wonder the Internet is, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Mako before today, but now I’ve found his excellent web site because I searched Google for eben moglen button lamb chop. (That lead me to a site one step removed, but there’s where it started.)

Funny how things can sit out there, waiting to be discovered anew. Ben’s post is almost 2 years old. I’m impressed with the number of worthy projects he contributes to, which of course recalls the other Ben that we started out talking about today.

Thanks for sharing, Benjamins Franklin and Mako Hill.

16 thoughts on “Ben Franklin on Patents

  1. The irony of the patent issue is that you don’t need to be an ethically motivated idealist to be against software patents. In fact it is the pro-software patent protagonists who should be viewed as the economically irresponsible (or sometimes just economically illiterate) ideologues.

  2. Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve found anyone making a serious argument that software patents encourage innovation. Everything I read points to the negative effect of patent “trolls.” (But of course I’m probably living in a fringe echo chamber.) All the time and expense that goes with the legal maneuvering around patents is incredibly wasteful, not to mention the stifling affect on cool new things we could be building.

  3. Could you please tell me a bit more about Benjamin Franklin’s life like his family,friends,birthday,where he lived and/or his death.Why do I need to know this is because i am doing it for school.


  4. Dear Hannah: I believe he had one brother and two sisters. Their names were Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Bart was an avid skateboarder and troublemaker. Lisa was academically gifted and a talented saxophonist. Maggie just crawled around a lot and sucked on a pacifier.

  5. I am very much inspired by Benjamin Franklin the Great and others who are working on “Open Source”. I am presently working on efficient stove designs for communities, declared all my designs as “Open Source Technology” which can be used for common good and for mitigating climate change through adaptation.

  6. Hi, found this blog page while “IXQUICKing” (my favorite general search engine) for information on Thomas Jefferson and his role in the U.S. Patent system, especially his relationship with Ben Franklin

    if you want to emphasis the concept of contributing “inventions” to society for free and open use, you might want to also include mention of such notables as Nicolas Appert (canned food during the Napoleonic wars of 1812), Louis Pasteur (pasteurization) and the French Government (who in 1839, made the process of photographic development by Daguerre, i.e., the invention of daguerreotype,”free to the world”

    regarding Ben Franklin’s contributions to technology, his greatest is the concept of tying together natural electrical phenomena with made-made static electricity with his famous kite experiment (1752), and his description of condensation of charge (i.e., capacitors) as demonstrated by the Leyden Jar, and the identification of positive and negative charges, all of which laid the groundwork for Sir J.J. Thompson’s discovery of the electron in the early 1900s, as well as for various other notables such as Faraday, Galvani, Volta, Oersted, Ampere, Ohm – thus, without Ben Franklin’s contributions to the field of electricity (free to the world), we might not be communicating in this medium called the “Internet” until decades or more later – he obviously preferred to contribute to science and technology, thereby helping the greatest number of people, rather than to be a minister, following the footsteps of his father – THANKS SO MUCH, BEN, for bucking the trend!

    Francis Lorin

  7. I agree that software patents are ridiculous. For example, I came up with a unique way of sorting lists in high school (decades ago), but have never considered patenting it. A few years ago, I saw that a similar solution had received a patent, but that won’t change the way I still write code using my approach.

    On the other hand, Ben Franklin lived in a different era. Most scientists and inventors in his time were amateurs, doing science as a hobby. They could afford to give away their ideas because they did not earn their living by creating ideas and information.

    Today, many people (including myself) produce nothing more tangible than data. I have no problem with anyone copying the ideas behind (for example) Quest for Glory. But those who copied the actual games directly affected my livelihood. They also indirectly affected the game industry by reducing profitability of games they copied. That may have indirectly led to many game series being canceled.

    When I write my blogs today, I don’t charge anything for them, and I have no problem with others linking to my articles. But, like Franklin, I would not be pleased if someone else copied my words, then sold them for a profit.

  8. No one seems to understand that when you create a new thing like say a logic system with special properties entirely out of transistors, resistors, diodes, and capacitors you are creating software in hardware and vice versa.

    The measure of the usefulness or newness is the patent quality and is subject to litigation and resolution based on those things which went before.

    Most of the “problem” people have with software patents is that they are obvious based on pre-existing code.

    I submit that any logic form is sufficient to overcome a “bad” software patent and that if the invention is truly new and contributes to society it deserves patent protection as does any real invention.

  9. Hi, Vic. Unfortunately, logic alone isn’t enough to overcome bad patents. It also takes a lot of money for companies to defend themselves against all these bad patents.

  10. I think one of the worst conflations in this discussion is art with engineering with science.

    Where scientific discoveries and technological principles are perhaps inevitably discovered knowledge that ideally would be shared by all, specific works of art and music and engineering are certainly unique to their creators and can not easily exist if the creators can’t profit from making them.

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