May 19, 2009 ·
The world of American copyright scholars is very familiar with the poetic passage of Jefferson’s, written in a letter:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.
Thomas Jefferson letter to Isaac Mcpherson, August 13, 1813, reprinted in H. A. Washington, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson 1790-1826, vol. 6 (Washington, D. C: Taylor & Maury, 1854), 180-81; quoted in Graham v. John Deere Company of Kansas, 383 U. S. 1, 8-9n.2 (1966).
David Ellerman writes to point to an earlier version of the same point, this one penned by Augustine. As Augustine wrote:
The words I am uttering penetrate your senses, so that every hearer holds them, yet withholds them from no other. Not held, the words could not inform. Withheld, no other could share them. Though my talk is, admittedly, broken up into words and syllables, yet you do not take in this portion or that, as when picking at your food. All of you hear all of it, though each takes all individually. I have no worry that, by giving all to one, the others are deprived. I hope, instead, that everyone will consume everything; so that, denying no other ear or mind, you take all to yourselves, yet leave all to all others. But for individual failures of memory, everyone who came to hear what I say can take it all off, each on one’s separate way.
Augustine Sermon; quoted in Scan Globally, Reinvent Locally: Knowledge Infrastructure and the Localization of Knowledge.” In: Joseph Stiglitz and the World Bank: The Rebel Within. Chang, Ha-Joon (Ed.),London: Anthem, 2001, pp. 194-219, quoting Wills, Garry 1999. Saint Augustine. New York: Viking, p. 145.
Ellerman is a researcher who had worked for Stiglitz at the World Bank. Thanks to him, Augustine is the new Jefferson.