Thomas Jefferson on Patents and Freedom of Ideas

I ran in to a great excerpt from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson in 1813 about the nature of ideas. It’s not the first time I’ve run across it, and like my Ben Franklin quote it has seen a lot of use in patent discussions, but it’s the kind of thing I think needs to be found on Looking at more of the letter:

Thomas Jefferson

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 while it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all, it would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors. It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance.

By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property.

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 every one, 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 the 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 in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

–Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 13 August 1813

That web page has a copyright notice, but surely this must be in the public domain by now, right? (This is one of the things that bugs me about copyrights–people claim them for everything.) It was all one chunk of text, so I took the liberty of inserting paragraph breaks.

Practical. Do patents encourage or stifle innovation? Do “monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society”? Are they necessary or will people invent anyway? I think they will invent anyway.

Inspiring. “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’s the right stuff.

16 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson on Patents and Freedom of Ideas

  1. Scott –

    I *completely* understand how you feel. This passage from Jefferson blew me away, too. I have to admit, I do not remember reading it before. How is it possible after nearly 200 years that these words are still so true today?

    I had to think a lot after reading this. Many walks. It was a eureka moment for me. This passage and Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture ( ), Raymond’s “Hacker Attitude” points 1 and 4 ( ). Those three influences came in a rapid fire succession for me, amongst other readings and happenings, and I could almost feel a shifting of gears.

    We live in an awesome time! Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Amy. I briefly considered if I should post the excerpt or not, since it has already been discussed so much, but then I realized the more people see and think about it, the better. It really is amazing, the ideas that have been with us for so long that become more relevant every day. I agree: we live in interesting times.

  3. Great quote…thank you!

    Whenever a man shares his idea it becomes everyone’s.
    But that sharing is assumed to be his choice right? It is not some doctrine of “must” do for the “collective”.

    This is where many people get “murky” in their thinking.

    Can we assume that the work I do for another is a contract between he and I and no other? Can we assume then that the pay I receive for my work is mine and no other’s?

    Then why do we allow an Income Tax without choice and can be taken with deadly force?

    Aren’t the profits made from one’s own labor his to hold and to do with as he wishes?

    Shouldn’t he be able to save and invest without taxation by force without choice?

    But once the invention is shared it is every man’s..

    Then once I spend the product of my labor it becomes”everyman’s” through the amount that I consume.

    Please visit and get click throughs to many more…

    Love to all,
    Father O’Malley

  4. “That web page has a copyright notice, but surely this must be in the public domain by now, right? (This is one of the things that bugs me about copyrights–people claim them for everything.)”

    It’s pretty ironic that the U of Chicago would be trying to claim a copyright to a writing that expresses opposition to the notion of natural intellectual property rights.

  5. Although Jefferson was an inventor he was able to invent as a hobby, having inherited a fortune at age 14. He also appears to have not been particularly skillful at managing his personal property, spending most of it by the time he died.

    I think it’s because he didn’t consider, understand, or value the economic argument for protecting creations, even if they are intangible, developed using time and money in order to enable people to spend time and money on such creations. We’re not all born in a position to be purely philanthropists. For those that are, the position was attained in the first place through property rights.

    If Jefferson had needed to make more money, he wouldn’t have needed to rely on capitalizing on intellectual property anyway, he could have just benefitted from the physical output of his 600 slaves.

    If expressed information should belong to society then, more importantly, should people not belong to themselves? I think that even ignoring Jefferson’s privileged perspective, his position on slavery, by itself, significantly undermines his argument against intellectual property.

  6. Beautiful. Thomas Jefforson sure knew what he was talking about, and analyzing his writings bring a smile to my face. Great quotations! Thanks!

  7. My goodness, sounds like you are completely unaware of the discussion at the constitutional convention, which pitted the ideas of Jefferson et al against those holding conventional European views of moral rights of authors and inventors.

    You can say a lot on this issue, but to claim that Thomas Jefferson did not understand the issues is a VERY peculiar position indeed.

    Remember that Jefferson’s views won out, which is why the US constitution does NOT have any sense of authors and inventors being owed anything by society. Read the powers clause, and observe that it is written solely from the point of view of what benefits the people as a whole. Authors and inventors in the US do not have some fundamental right to profit from their writings and inventions!

  8. Jefferson’s position on patents changed over the years. He was initially opposed to them, but by 1789 he proposed a specific provision in the Bill of Rights confering a monopoly right to inventors. In 1791, he sponsored a bill that would have been the first patent act (A Bill to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts (1791). PTJ, 22:359-361). As Secretary of State he was the first de facto patent examiner. He was greatly surprised by the very positive effect patents had on invention in the United States, and wrote they had “given a spring to invention beyond his conception.”

    Incidentally he hated being a patent examiner. He once wrote it was the most difficult task he had ever undertaken.

    I know that this site is about one person’s point of view, and information will be posted only if it supports that point of view, but if anyone is interested in finding good primary sources regarding Jefferson’s ideas on patenting, check out the Monticello collection’s web page at

    It’s a good place to start.

  9. Hi, Nick — whether or not his views changed, the quote above still captures something true, especially the highlighted part.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, and look — the information you posted may support a different view, but it has been posted. :-)

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