Discussions On The Abolition Of Patents In The UK, France, Germany And The Netherlands, From 1869

from the a-bit-of-history dept

In the past, I've talked about Eric Schiff's book Industrialization Without National Patents, which takes a close look at how the Netherlands industrialized during a period of time when it explicitly abolished patents -- from 1869 to 1912 -- and Switzerland, during a time when the country's patent system was effectively non-existent for most inventions -- from 1850 until 1907. This academic study, which was published in 1971, does a really good job of digging into the data of what happened in two economies during a period of time when they didn't have patents (spoilers: both did pretty well and actually became centers for certain industries). The Netherlands was perhaps the most interesting, seeing as it was the one country that explicitly chose to abolish its existing patent system in 1869.

Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise to find out that such discussions didn't just take place in the Netherlands, but elsewhere as well. Via Stephan Kinsella and David Koepsell comes the discovery of a book from 1869 concerning Recent Discussions on the Abolition of Patents for Inventions, and covering examples of such discussions in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands (for what it's worth, Germany also had no patent system until 1877). The book's subtitle also notes: "With suggestions as to international arrangements regarding inventions and copyright."

The entire work has been helpfully scanned by Google, and since it's well into the public domain, can be displayed in its entirety. In fact, the book (quite interestingly!) has a "no rights are reserved" notice in the beginning. So even if it had been published more recently, it would have been considered in the public domain. Nice to see that even back in 1869 authors were willing to support the public domain by choice.

What's quite incredible as you read through the various letters, speeches and writings in the book is how many of them could fit into today's debate. Right from the beginning, the points sound similar to what the debates today are about:
The fact is, no one, I presume wishes to say that an inventor is undeserving and should go unrewarded. All that the opponents of the Patent system do say is, that the present machinery gives minimum advantage to the inventor, and inflicts maximum disadvantage on the public. Besides, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the patentee is only a simultaneous inventor with a number of others, who lose their labour and ingenuity because one man happens to get in first....
That sounds mighty familiar. Other pieces point out that patents are incompatible with free trade and, there are regular points about how independent or simultaneous invention is happening in most of these cases, rather than anyone "copying" ideas from one another. There's also a discussion on how patents create fuzzy boundaries, which make it terrible if anyone is comparing it to any sort of actual "property right."

The more you look, the more you'll find lines that sound so familiar:
We acknowledge that the man who first constructed a hut was perfectly right in making good his claim against those who would have deprived him of it, and that he was justified in vindicating his claim by force. He had employed his time and strength in building this hut; it was undoubtedly his, and his neighbours acted up to their natural rights and in their own interests in helping him to oppose the intruder. But there ended both the right of the individual and that of the community.

If this first man, not content with claiming his hut had pretended that the idea of building it belonged exclusively to him, and that consequently no other human being had a right to build a similar one, the neighbours would have revolted against so monstrous a pretension, and never would have allowed so mischievous an extension of the right which he had in the produce of his labour....

And if, in our day, imitation of an invention is not generally considered as guilty an act as robbery of tangible property, it is because every one understands the difference between an idea and a thing made or done.
There are plenty more quotes. Take a look through the collection and enjoy -- or be horrified that we're still having these debates 150 years later, and the situation has become worse, not better.

Filed Under: france, germany, netherlands, nineteenth century, patent abolition, patents, public domain, uk

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2013 @ 1:55am

    Looks like an argument FOR patents..

    So the 'experiment' has already been run, and it appears it was a failure, as we still have patents, and those places had a much larger technical revolution post any patent issues post 1900's.

    So what is the point of this argument, if not FOR SUPPORT OF PATENTS !!!

    Mr Masnick, do you intend to fight it for another 100 years, considering the great success you 'types' seem to (NOT) have had for the past 100+ years ?

    I hope you know, in the past 100 years we've had a fair amount of 'technical progress' particularly post 1910 WITH PATENTS..

    So what is your argument, to try the 'experiment' again 100 years later, it did not work then, yet it does work with patents, (last 100 years can attest to that).

    As a society we have probably had more advancement and innovation in the past 30 years, then we did in the time between 1800 and 1900 !!

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