Originally published on July 4, 2014

As part of this week’s lead up to today’s U.S. Independence Day, we noted that Benjamin Franklin, a member of the Committee of Five responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, opposed patents and never sought one for his long list of inventions, nor did he copyright the writings that were the source of much of his wealth. Thomas Jefferson, another member of the Committee of Five, and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was, like Franklin, a prolific writer, scientist and inventor. However, Thomas Jefferson’s views on patents and intellectual property rights were more nuanced and evolving than Franklin’s.

Also on SmallBusiness.com | Ben Franklin Never Sought a Patent or Copyright

According to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, a resource of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in 1787 Jefferson’s opposition to monopoly in any form led him to oppose patents. But by 1789, Jefferson’s firm opposition had weakened. Writing to James Madison that year, Jefferson said he approved the Bill of Rights as far as it went, but would like to see the addition of an article specifying that “Monopolies may be allowed to person for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term not exceeding (a set period of years) but for no longer term and for no other purpose.”

After leaving the White House (he was President from 1801-1809) and returning to Monticello, Jefferson wrote* the following in 1814, two centuries ago, this year.:

“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

“A man has a right to use a saw, an axe, a plane, separately; may he not combine their uses on the same piece of wood? He has a right to use his knife to cut his meat, a fork to hold it; may a patentee take from him the right to combine their use on the same subject? Such a law, instead of enlarging our conveniences, as was intended, would most fearfully abridge them, and crowd us by monopolies out of the use of the things we have.”

*From: Letter to Oliver Evans, (Jaunary 16, 1814); published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905) Vol. 13, p. 66.

There’s so much to learn from history | Be sure to check out our growing Guide to Small Business in History

(Jefferson portrait via Wikimedia Commons)

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