Admitting, for the sake of the argument, that B would have produced a certain idea, if A had not done it before him, the objection is of no more weight, in the case of intellectual property, than in the case of material property. If A had not taken possession of a certain tract of wild land, and converted it into a farm, some one would have come after him, and done it. But that is no reason why the farm does not now belong to A.
The principle goes to the destruction of all rights of property in the fruits of man’s labor, because if A, as first producer, is to be deprived of the fruits of his labor, merely for the reason that B would have produced the same things, if A had not, then B certainly, as second producer, ought to have no property in them, for the reason that, if he had not produced them, C would have done so. Admitting that B would have produced the same things that A has done, he could have no better right to them than A now has. So that the principle goes to the destruction of all rights of property in nearly or quite all material, as well as intellectual, things.
The course of events and the progress of knowledge, science, and art—in other words, all the various kinds of knowledge that have come down to us—are mere tools, which the past has put into the hands of the present, for doing the work that is now to be done. These tools, so far as they are now common property, are free to all; and each one avails himself of such as he finds best adapted to the work he has in hand; whether that work be the growing of agricultural products, the building of houses or ships, the manufacture of clothing, the printing of books, or the invention of steam engines, or electric telegraphs. And no one, of the present day, can be justly denied his right of property in the fruits of his labor, because, in producing them, he used any or all these tools which the past has supplied for the benefit of those who are now alive. The dead have no right of property in either the intellectual or material things they have left to the living; yet only could have the right to object to the use of what once was theirs. The living all stand on the same level, in regard to their right to use these now common tools, for the production of wealth. And their individual rights, to the products of their labor, are not at all effected by their use of these tools.
It is no doubt true, that the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, science, and art, suggest, point to, contribute to, and aid the productions of, possibly inventions. But it is equally true that the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, science, and art, suggest, point to, contribute to, and aid the production and acquisition of, all kinds of property. But that is no reason why things should not be the property of those, who have produced or acquired them. Yet the argument is equally strong against the right of property in things, as in intellectual productions. If, because authors and inventors, in producing their writings and discoveries, had the advantage of the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, in their favor, they are to be denied the right of property in the fruits of their labors, then every other man, who has the course of events, and the progress of knowledge, science, and art in his favor, (and what man has not?) should, on the same principle, be denied all ownership of the fruits of his labor—whether those fruits be the agricultural wealth he has produced, by the aid of the ploughs, and hoes, and chains, and harrows, and shovels, which had been invented, and the agricultural knowledge which had been acquired, before his time; or whether they be the houses or ships he has built, through the aid of the axes, and saws, and planes, and hammers, which had been devised, and the mechanical knowledge and skill that had been acquired, before he was born.
Another theory, advocated by some persons, is, that abstractly, and on principles of natural justice, men have the same right of property in their ideas, that they have in any other products of their labor; but that this property requires peculiar and extra ordinary protection; and that the present laws on the subject are in the nature of a compromise between the government and the inventor; the government giving extraordinary protection for a time, and the inventor, in consideration of that protection, giving up his property at the end of that time.
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But since the act of making an idea necessarily involves the giving of it, the law necessarily regard it giving of it. If so, the owner, when he makes an idea must take all the consequences that follow from giving of it. We have seen what those consequences are, to wit. Where the idea has a merely trivial market value, the presumption clearly is, that the owner to part with his exclusive right of property in it. Where the idea has a large market value, the presumption clearly is, that he does intend to part with his exclusive right of property in it. But where the market value of the idea is neither very important, nor really unimportant, no very strong presumption either way can arise from the simple fact of giving possession; and the owner’s intention will be open to be determined by other circumstances.
Because men will be thereby discouraged from producing valuable ideas; from making them known; from offering them for sale; and from thereby enabling mankind to purchase, and have the benefit of them. The law should as much encourage men to produce and make known valuable ideas, and offer them for sale, as it does to produce and make known valuable material commodities, and offer them for sale. It should therefore as much protect a man’s right of property in a valuable idea, after he has produced it, and made it known to the public, and offered it for sale, as it should his right of property in a valuable material commodity, after he has produced it, and advertised it to the public. It would be no more absurd or atrocious, in policy, or in law, to deprive a man of his right of property in a valuable material commodity, as a penalty for exhibiting or offering that commodity to the public, than it is to deprive a man of his right of property in a valuable idea, as a penalty for bringing that idea to the knowledge of the public. If men cannot be protected in bringing their valuable ideas into the market, they will either not produce them, or will keep them concealed as far as possible, and strive to realize some profit by using them as far as they can, in private. In short, they will do just as men would do with their material commodities, if they were not protected in making them known to the public—that is, either not produce them, or keep them concealed, and use them in private, instead of offering them for sale to those who would purchase and use them, for their own benefit, and the benefit of the public. The law cannot men to produce valuable ideas, and disclose them to the world; it can only them to do it. And it can induce them to do it, only by protecting their right of property in them, or by making some other compensation for them.
No law could be more absurd in itself, or hardly more fatal to honesty in trade, or even more destructive to trade itself, than a law, that should forbid the owner of a commodity to exhibit it, submit it freely to inspection, or even give it into the of a proposed purchaser, for examination and trial, except under penalty of thereby forfeiting his right of property in it. Commercial society could not exist a moment under such a principle. In fact, neither civil, social, nor commercial society could exist under it. And the principle is just as absurd, fatal, and destructive, when applied to ideas, as it would be if applied to material commodities.