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:
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.
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  — 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.
 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.
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.