Thomas Jefferson On Why Ideas Are Not Property

Thomas Jefferson On Why Ideas Are Not Property


n today’s world there are two trends, that are directly opposing one another. On one side you have the traditional patent and copyright movement, which protects ideas and intellectual property from being stolen. On the other side you have open source licensing and creative commons, movements to freely share information.

What is the correct approach when it comes to ideas? Should the creator hold exclusive rights? Should they be openly shared with everyone, to benefit society as a whole? The debate is nothing new, as it’s been a point of contention since the 1800’s for one of our founding fathers.

At the time, Thomas Jefferson served on the patent board, and was very much against the ownership of ideas. In a letter to Isaac McPherson, he eloquently lays out his thoughts.

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.

Full letter found here.

Jefferson makes some important points here that I believe we would all benefit from revisiting.

1. Ideas once shared are owned by all.

Ideas aren’t easily controlled. Once they are out there, they spread organically. You can’t take an idea back after it’s released. What’s more interesting is how ideas seem to pop up across the world, soon after they are discovered by one individual. Even if there is no real link between the two instances.

This phenomenon is known as multiple discovery and it speaks to how ideas operate on another level entirely. The rules of property don’t apply to them.

2. Ideas are not lessened by sharing.

Physical property can be hurt by sharing. Letting everyone use your car or sleep in your bed, has an obvious cost to it. Ideas on the other hand lose nothing when they are shared. Going from your mind to another’s does not hurt the idea or its merit.

It is still intact, whole, and holds the same meaning it did for the individual from the start.

3. Ideas are nothing without execution.

Whether good or bad, the benefit of ideas being freely accessible is that society can utilize those ideas too. The thing is, an idea is nothing without execution. Having an idea means little without the pursuit of it.

Everyone has ideas, but acting on them is what makes the difference. It is fair to say that some ideas should be shared with society, as the benefit is obvious. Others should not. This is where the lines begin to get blurry, as Jefferson acknowledges the difficulty himself.

Considering the exclusive right to invention as given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society, I know well the difficulty of drawing a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not.

What we need to do better, is understand when we should be open and gracious with our ideas, and when we should protect them. In either case, value from the idea will still depend on execution.

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.

Ideas are not property. They are meant to be shared, even designed to be shared.

Be open with your ideas. Share them, discuss them, make them better, and then, most importantly, act on them.