Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Cicero Cares what Thomas Jefferson Thought about Patents

 One of my favorite article titles (and also an article a like a lot) is Who Cares What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Patents? Reevaluating the Patent 'Privilege' in Historical Context, by Adam Mossoff. The article takes on the view that Jefferson's utilitarian view of patents should somehow reign, when there were plenty of others who had different, natural law views of patenting.

And so I read with great interest Jeremy Sheff's latest article, Jefferson's Taper. This article challenges everyone's understanding of Jefferson. The draft is on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
This Article reports a new discovery concerning the intellectual genealogy of one of American intellectual property law’s most important texts. The text is Thomas Jefferson’s often-cited letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the absence of a natural right of property in inventions, metaphorically illustrated by a “taper” that spreads light from one person to another without diminishing the light at its source. I demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson likely copied this Parable of the Taper from a nearly identical passage in Cicero’s De Officiis, and I show how this borrowing situates Jefferson’s thoughts on intellectual property firmly within a natural law theory that others have cited as inconsistent with Jefferson’s views. I further demonstrate how that natural law theory rests on a pre-Enlightenment Classical Tradition of distributive justice in which distribution of resources is a matter of private judgment guided by a principle of proportionality to the merit of the recipient — a view that is at odds with the post-Enlightenment Modern Tradition of distributive justice as a collective social obligation that proceeds from an initial assumption of human equality. Jefferson’s lifetime correlates with the historical pivot in the intellectual history of the West from the Classical Tradition to the Modern Tradition, but modern readings of the Parable of the Taper, being grounded in the Modern Tradition, ignore this historical context. Such readings cast Jefferson as a proto-utilitarian at odds with his Lockean contemporaries, who supposedly recognized property as a pre-political right. I argue that, to the contrary, Jefferson’s Taper should be read from the viewpoint of the Classical Tradition, in which case it not only fits comfortably within a natural law framework, but points the way toward a novel natural-law-based argument that inventors and other knowledge-creators actually have moral duties to share their knowledge with their fellow human beings.
I don't have much more to say about the article, other than that it is a great and interesting read. I'm a big fan of papers like this, and I think this one is done well.

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