Henry George / On Patents and Copyrights


From: School of Cooperative Individualism Library

On Patents and Copyrights

Henry George


Following the habit of confounding the exclusive right granted by a
patent and that granted by a copyright as recognitions of the right of
labor to its intangible productions, I in this fell into error which I
subsequently acknowledged and corrected in the Standard of June 23,
1888. The two things are not alike, but essentially different. The
copyright is not a right to the exclusive use of a fact, an idea, or a
combination, which by the natural law of property all are free to use;
but only to the labor expended in the thing itself. It does not
prevent any one from using for himself the facts, the knowledge, the
laws or combinations for a similar production, but only from using the
identical form of the particular book or other production–the actual
labor which has in short been expended in producing it. It rests
therefore upon the natural, moral right of each one to enjoy the
products of his own exertion, and involves no interference with the
similar right of any one else to do likewise.

The patent, on the other hand, prohibits any one from doing a similar
thing, and involves, usually for a specified time, an interference
with the equal liberty on which the right of ownership rests. The
copyright is therefore in accordance with the moral law–it gives to
the man who has expended the intangible labor required to write a
particular book or paint a picture security against the copying of
that identical thing. The patent is in defiance of this natural right.
It prohibits others from doing what has been already attempted. Every
one has a moral right to think what I think, or to perceive what I
perceive, or to do what I do–no matter whether be gets the hint from
me or independently of me. Discovery can give no right of ownership,
for whatever is discovered must have been already here to be
discovered. If a man make a wheelbarrow, or a book, or a picture, he
has a moral right to that particular wheelbarrow, or book, or picture,
but no right to ask that others be prevented from making similar
things. Such a prohibition, though given for the purpose of
stimulating discovery and invention, really in the long run operates
as a check upon them.”

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