Jefferson, ideas, property, and the constitution

7 10 2008

So I had my IT classes read and paraphrase the following famous quote by Thomas Jefferson who rebuked the notion that ideas be treated as 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. […] Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

I then had the class find where in the US constitution a provision is made to establish copyright and patent law. Using a search engine, they quickly came up with the appropriate passage from Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

I then asked them to respond to the following question:

Does the clause support or stand in opposition to Jefferson’s argument?

A few struggled with this as the answer appears to be both yes and no. The fact that the constitution establishes “exclusive Right[s]” seems to conflict with Jefferson’s position. Many students immediately saw it this way. My rhetorical follow-up question helped balance their view:

So when you buy a car, how long do you think you should be able to keep it?

Our next task is to examine how digital technology and global networks have increased conflict in an “exclusive Right[s]” environment as compared to our analog past. The plan is to then look at a framework that helps bring 21st-century balance to All Rights Reserved copyright law and find out why many software developers are up in arms over patents.

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