Thomas Jefferson Decided The Hemp Brake Was Too Important To Patent

from the locking-stuff-up-isn't-a-very-good-thing dept

We’ve had plenty of discussions about Thomas Jefferson’s views on the patent system. He is, clearly, the father of the patent system in the US. While he was incredibly skeptical of the idea of granting any monopolies originally, he did come around to accept patents in very limited circumstances, and when he oversaw the patent system, he was careful to make sure that the downsides of such monopolies were limited. Separately, for many years, I’ve heard the story of how Ben Franklin purposely decided not to patent his stove invention, stating:

“As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

However, I had not heard of a similar story involving Thomas Jefferson refusing to patent certain inventions he came up with as well. Reader jprlk points us to a recent Straight Dope column, which is mostly about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s exposure to marijuana, but there is one interesting part about how Jefferson refused to patent his “hemp brake” patent, because he found the invention to be “too important”:

Jefferson invented a better “hemp brake” to separate the fibers from the stalks, something he thought was so important agriculturally that he refused to patent it.

Combined with the Franklin quote, this is quite telling. In both cases, they realized that the invention could be a lot more useful if it were not limited. This goes against claims by patent supporters that (1) an invention is not a “real invention” if it’s not patented and (2) the patent system is necessary for better dissemination of ideas. It’s nice to see (yet again) that Thomas Jefferson, despite overseeing the early years of our patent system, clearly was quite skeptical of the actual benefits of such a system.

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Comments on “Thomas Jefferson Decided The Hemp Brake Was Too Important To Patent”

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Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“That was back when the men who ran this country had morals that weren’t for sale to the highest bidder.”

Well, they would have been, except that all of the auction blocks were too busy selling brown-skinned folks….

Let’s not go crazy on the morality. The government did plenty wrong back then, they’re doing plenty wrong now….

Kilroy says:

Only if you accept that future

These things cannot come to pass if the majority of the populace refuses to accept them. You may feel like you have no choice, but choosing to have no choice is a choice in & of itself.

Refuse to pay … and either you will have no tv or someone will say “hey lets do free tv …”. Ultimately, the power is yours.

The Anti-Mike (profile) says:

I have to laugh at this one.

All Jefferson did was put something in the public domain. He could have just as easily patent it and issues licenses for $1, whatever. Not a big deal.

I would have to say that it’s funny that you have to go back that far to try to find stories to put down the patent system. As Dark Helmet mentioned, there is those little issues of the slave trade, 3/5ths of a man stuff, no vote for women… yeah, I would say that Jefferson should have a say in modern times.

*shakes head*

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Anti-Mike, this is a weak troll. Really, you are going with patents are so important that the founding fathers were wrong.

Jefferson crafted our patent system. If we take away his “say on modern times”, then patents go away.

The point here is that the Father of our patent system saw times when things shouldn’t be patented for the public good. That indicates he saw more flaws in the patent system he created than these other issues that you bring up.

The Anti-Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nice try, but sort of a fail all around.

My point is that Jefferson has plenty of horrible views on subjects that are much clearer now. His views on patents may have been acceptable or reasonable back then, but don’t seem very relevant in today’s world.

Sort of like slavery, it seemed pretty reasonable back then, I am sure, but it isn’t a very relevant idea in today’s society.

More than anything, I think this entire post is just Mike setting a nice little cornerstone for a later line of thought. I can imagine this post being linked later as “we have already shown that even Jefferson hated the patent system” or something similar. Blatant bootstrapping is a Techdirt feature!

The other thing is this could be a nice re-write of history. Perhaps Jefferson as an inventory knew he could profit from his invention, but Jefferson the patriot knew the country would benefit more from the invention being used right now. We have no simple way to know his actual motivations in this situation, perhaps he was just feeling generous or didn’t feel the desire to do the paperwork required to get a patent. We may never know.

I am waiting to see how Mike abuses this post in the future.

The Anti-Mike says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I forgot to say though, that Washington freed all his slaves upon his death. The fathers knew what an issue slavery was and how it had the potential to tear the country apart even then if it was pressed too far, something which could have destroyed a country at that point less than fifty years old. And no one wanted to be back under Britain’s control if that happened.

Just forget everything I said previous to this. My troll’s acting up again.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: Pot, Kettle

The Anti-Mike sneered:

I would have to say that it’s funny that you have to go back that far to try to find stories to put down the patent system. As Dark Helmet mentioned, there is those little issues of the slave trade, 3/5ths of a man stuff, no vote for women… yeah, I would say that Jefferson should have a say in modern times.

That should work both ways, then. Today we have widespread child abuse, hunger, civil wars, people dying from curable diseases, therefore modern patent supporters have no credibility. QED.

Anonymous Coward says:

Jefferson was a prolific inventor, but his principal line of “work” was not invention specific. In fact, it has been reported by numerous credible sources that Mr. Jefferson deliberately chose not to lay claim to any of his inventions. In this regard he closely mimiced Jonas Salk’s discovery of a polio vaccine, who likewise chose to dedicate his work to the public at large. This is not surprising given that Dr. Salk was a reseacher and not an entreprenueu trying to build a business.

As for the phrase “too important”, perhaps this is true, but I for one am not prepared to accept at face value usage of the term by sites largely devoted to the legalization of marijuana. While hemp is a member of the cannabil family, equating it with marijuana is completely off the mark. The former has a level of hallucinogenic content that borders on nil, with its primary use being industrial in nature.

Mr. Franklin was similarly situated.

At best the contents of the article shed little, if any, light on the pros and cons of our patent laws.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

but I for one am not prepared to accept at face value usage of the term by sites largely devoted to the legalization of marijuana.

Um. The Straight Dope, despite it’s name, is not and has never been a site largely devoted to the legalization of marijuana. Not even slightly. It’s not devoted to the legalization of marijuana at all. It’s not devoted to marijuana at all. It was just this one column that mentioned hemp.

Considering you are someone who constantly berates us for not getting the facts before making statements, perhaps you might consider doing the same. This isn’t even a case where you need to do serious investigative research. You can just go to: and look.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nice way to ignore the substance and focus on something quite tangential.

Merely for your information (yes, I know you hate the term whenever I use it), I did go to the linked article and perused the site. Since I did not find any attribution to the second quote you noted in your article, I performed a web search to try and determine from whence came the reference to Jefferson’s view of his “hemp brake”. Of course, attribution was nowhere to be found, though I did note that the top search results were nothing more than techdirt’s article, straightdope’s article, and copycat articles that were all identical. Moreover, I ran a search through my personal library of Jefferson’s work to see if the gist of the quote was contained anywhere therein. This as well yielded no relevant information. Thus, what I was left with was a statement, the basis for which is not readily apparent.

Since you feel compelled to bring up the subject of research, I presume that you as well did not take the second quote at face value and did attempt to perform some level of research to ascertain if it has some measure of validity. After all, the premise of your article is that even Jefferson “clearly was quite skeptical of the actual benefits of such a system.’

I have read over the years many publications, articles, letters, etc. about Jefferson’s views concerning patent law. Yes, he was skeptical of anything pertaining to “monopolies” and did express concerns regarding the concept that eventually was adopted as Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 to the US Constitution. As an original member of the group that passed upon the merits of patent applications he brought that skepticism with him. His later writings, however, reflect that his skepticism later gave way to a view that the incentive afforded by patents did yield positive results. The fact he may have personally chosen not to utilize the patent laws can in no reasonable way be interpreted as his viewing such laws as harmful to the promotion of progress in the useful arts.

Quite frankly, I believe Anti-Mike is correct in the fourth paragraph to his comment at 21 above. I think it quite likely that in the not too distant future you will author an article with a link back as he suggests.

I agree with many of the economic arguments you raise in support of your positions, but do not share the same opinion as it relates to a historical representation of Mr. Jefferson’s views concerning patent law. There is much more to his views than your articles suggest, leading at times to factually inaccurate or misleading portrayals. Moreover, it is disingenuous to focus almost exclusively on Mr. Jefferson to the exclusion of the views of others of his colleagues who collectively contributed to the establishment of our initial rules of law, including both patent and copyright law.

A final comment, if I may. Nothing I am stating here or have stated elsewhere reflects my endorsement or agreement with laws enacted pursuant to the “Copyright and Patent Clause” or the “Commerce Clause”. My opinions are these and other matters are expressed in professional organizations in which I am a member. It does bear mentioning, though, that in most instances I am in the minority when I advocate drawing back the law to more closely align with the concepts underlying why the law was created in the first place. Think what you will, but to lump me in with “maximalists” would be incorrect.

Charles (profile) says:

Hemp is NOT Marijuana

This really infuriates me. Hemp is NOT marijuana. YEs, it is in the same family, but industrial grade hemp – which has all kinds of marvelous uses and the decriminalization/reintroduction of which could SAVE OUR (and our farmland) ECONOMY IN ONE YEAR – is NOT something anyone can get high on. Its THC content is so low as to be virtually non-existent.

staff3 says:

inclomplete and misleading

“In both cases, they realized that the invention could be a lot more useful if it were not limited.”

At the time of Franklin’s invention of his stove there was no PA nor did any type of colonial patent system exist to my knowledge so there was no opportunity for Franklin to patent it. By that time of his life Franklin was quite comfortable financially. Most of his wealth was derived from his printing business and his writings for them. I have never read anything to suggest he felt his writings should not be protected -quite the contrary. There is nothing in his biography to suggest that nor in any of his writings.

I recall the steamboat was patented in the state of NY after the revolution and the cotton gin was patented in one or more states, but the system was quite imperfect and Whitney was unable to protect it.

Jefferson initially believed the US should remain an agricultural country, but later after experiences with British blockades came around to understanding the need for the US to be technologically independent. That was how he described it in his writings to friends. Your research is quite limited and misleading.

Vic kley says:

TJ and the Hemp Brake

Mike please stop trying to put words in the mouths of those of us who use, and support the patent system.

Inventions do not require patents and no one has ever claimed they do. If an invention is created and not published or patented anyone may come along to do both things i.e. patent and publish.

It is common to have people approach an inventor and state that they thought of the idea well before the inventor. I’m sure that in many cases their claims are true. There are specific things that must be done in order for them to have legal precedent in the US, or to eliminate a patent in the rest of the world. If you are interested in these details talk to patent lawyer.

Simply publishing the invention will place it into the Public Domain and many people and companies do just that every day. It is still an invention, but one which anyone is free to copy.

In Franklin’s day the USPTO did not exist so he did not have the option of patenting his invention.


Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Thomas Jefferson's Hemp brake

I’m ashamed of you Michael. As one of the very few people who offer reasonable opinions and news, you should resist such knee-jerk reactions!

Let me rewrite this for you:

The present IP system is a disaster. Any reasonable person agrees.
ANY reasonable patent system should include a “reasonable fees” provision as a contractual right for patenting, we don’t
ANY WEALTHY person (Franklin and Jefferson) who invents and HAS THE RESOURCES to develop an idea SHOULD dedicate it to the public (lots of luck on that, Michael, with today’s wealthy people!)
BUT, if someone does NOT have the ability to bring something to the market (which should also be a requirement of a reasonable IP system) they SHOULD be able to protect it from “typical businessmen” and similar thieves! Otherwise, they would be better off discarding the idea, and we ALL would suffer (THE REASON THOMAS JEFFERSON FAVORED A PATENT SYSTEM, even though he personally could afford to dedicate his efforts to the public!).
If you had researched more deeply, you would have found that Ben Franklin felt the same way.
RULES THAT MAY APPLY to one person (say, a very wealthy person) MAY NOT APPLY to another (a person who is struggling to exist!).

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