Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls

Just in time to celebrate the 266th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson on April 13, 1743 in Albemarle County in the Virginia Colony, the BLS Library has added to its collection Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: a Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights by Jeffrey H. Matsuura (Call # KF2979 .M34 2008). This small, aesthetically pleasing 154 page volume published by the University of Virginia Press deals with a subject matter that is very important today: intellectual property, a hot topic in today’s world that Jefferson thought of 200 years ago.

The book examines Jefferson’s perspective on the topic from the perspective of a practitioner, a world class scientist and inventor and the first Commissioner of Patents in his capacity as the nation’s first Secretary of State. Jefferson, who is best known as one of the Founding Fathers and the third President of the early republic, was active as an inventor who tinkered with the latest technical advances of his day, improving on the creations of other inventors. Jefferson s philosophy regarding intellectual property placed an emphasis on the practical benefits for people most in need. He favored encouraging widespread participation in the knowledge networks of his time.

His inquisitive nature and focus on practical applications made him an active mechanical tinkerer. He worked on improving agricultural devices like the plow. He also developed labor-saving devices like the polygraph, a device that enabled a writer to make multiple copies of a document at the same time. Jefferson was curious about a wide range of innovative devices. One of the most interesting is the wheel cipher, a cryptographic device for encrypting and decrypting messages for use in official US government communications. Like so many of Jefferson’s devices, the wheel cipher was a refinement on the work of several previous inventors. Jefferson never pursued commercial development of this device demonstrating his general lack of interest in commercialization of his inventive efforts.