Samuel Slater’s Clue

My mother grew up in Rhode Island, and as a child I went there often.

Her aunt had a home on Gaspee Point, so I learned that the burning of the HMS Gaspee, not the Boston Tea Party, was the first shot of the American Revolution. The story of Roger Williams taught me how “religious freedom” can easily become a cover for tyranny.

I was also given the tour and story of Slater’s Mill. Samuel Slater founded the American textile industry by smuggling to America the plans of the British mill where he worked.

Today this would be called a case of industrial espionage. Under the “No Electronic Theft” Act, Americans might want to put Samuel Slater in jail.

The United States dominates the fields of patent and copyright, so it’s only natural we’d seek protection for our creations. But the story of Samuel Slater should be taken as a warning about not only why we protect patents and copyrights but also what the limits of those protections must be.

When you file for a patent, as part of the application you describe your invention in detail. The patent then publishes the description so that everyone knows what you did and how you did it. The idea isn’t just to protect your invention, but to give others the information they need to improve it and then create their own patented products based on it.

Copyright works the same way. An author or publisher gains the exclusive right to profit from his or her work. But he or she doesn’t gain full control of the work. That’s what the doctrine of “fair use” is all about.

Over the last few years, our courts and our legislatures, under the prodding of lazy holders of patents and copyrights, have begun ignoring Samuel Slater’s Clue. They have extended the protection of patents to all versions of inventions (like business models), halting the progress of invention. They have thrown out the “fair use” doctrine, which protects users of copyright information from prosecution. They have also extended the reach of patent and copyright beyond death, so lazy heirs (and corporations) might profit for doing nothing but sending their lawyers to court.

Basically, they have put patent and copyright on a collision course with the First Amendment.

More important, courts and legislatures, under the prodding of copyright holders, have sought to extend this stupidity to the Internet. The creation that can best extend the wealth of patents and copyrights by putting this material in the hands of anyone is being systematically censored so that no one will see or use anything without paying first.

What’s worse is that by writing these very paragraphs, I risk being branded as an “enemy” of patent and copyright protections. That is nonsense. I depend on copyright for my livelihood. But I also know that all rights must be balanced against others, that there are no absolutes. I can’t use my religious faith to suppress yours, so there are limits to the First Amendment. The same balance must be struck with patents and copyrights.

Without balance, laws are ignored and become unenforceable. That’s Samuel Slater’s Clue, and it’s as relevant today as it was 200 years ago.

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