Ben Franklin and Intellectual Property -- by Lewis Hyde
How did the founding generation in the United States imagine what we now call “intellectual property”? I have recently been reading about Benjamin Franklin with that question in mind.
From an early age Franklin wrote or spoke as if he himself were like a book. At age 22, around the time he established his first printing partnership in Philadelphia, he suggested that the following epitaph might adorn his grave: “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.”
Franklin is not just a book here, he is a book that can be revised and corrected. The conceit is repeated in his Autobiography where he begins by declaring that he’d happily live his life over again, asking only “the advantage authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.” His narrative eventually enumerates a half-dozen “errata” that the author wishes he could correct, failings of character that, were he allowed to reprint, he would not repeat.
Franklin doesn’t present himself as exactly “like a book,” then, but more “like a print shop,” one whose movable type allows for a series of books whose content can be altered as time goes on.
This image of text always open to revision fits with the eighteenth century’s civic republican ideal in which individuals were urged to subordinate their own self-interest in favor of the public good. Individual or sectarian interests were imagined always to be partial and prone to error, error that might best be winnowed out by the summed wisdom of “the people.” Franklin’s own practice embodied this ideology; he early took to presenting his ideas in a self-effacing manner, presenting them as coming from someone else or prefacing them with phrases like “it appears to me,” or “if I am not mistaken.”
The image of a corrigible text fits not only with republicanism but with the eighteenth-century ideal of scientific inquiry. We can see it modeled in the letter that Franklin sent to a London friend along with his first report on his experiments with electricity. The letter confesses that he was tempted to keep his thoughts private “’till corrected and improved,” but thought better of it, “since even ... imperfect Experiments,” if communicated, can usefully excite other scientists toward “more exact disquisitions ... and more compleat Discoveries.” The truth is more likely to emerge from a community of scientists, in which individuals participate by contributing their partial and potentially flawed results.
How does all of this relate to questions of intellectual property? A longer essay would be needed to draw out all of the implications, so here I will suggest only one. In terms of both political and scientific discourse, Franklin’s sense of himself and of his writings call into question the private ownership of knowledge. Knowledge in Franklin’s world is sociable and cumulative. It does not belong to private persons but to the Republic of Letters.
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The American Philosophical Society, Yale University Press, and the Packard Humanities Institute have recently made all of Franklin’s papers available as a searchable database. See: http://www.franklinpapers.org/franklin/