I’m still reading Franklin’s autobiography and wasn’t surprised to learn of his position on patents. I right away wanted to post the blurb here for the world to see, although a Google search quickly revealed that this is an often-quoted passage:
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: