CRF Blog

Intellectual Property and the Constitution

by Bill Hayes

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution lists the powers of Congress. Among the powers granted to Congress is this:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries….

In short, Congress has the power to write copyright and patent laws.

Two new books take opposite positions on the merit of intellectual property laws.

William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention argues that in favor of the patent system. The New York Times Book Review calls Rosen “a natural and playful storyteller, and his digressions both inform the narrative and lend it an eccentric and engaging rhythm.” Rosen tells the story of the steam engine, and points out that the seed of the idea for the engine began in the first century A.D. with Heron of Alexandria, but went no further for a long time. The reason, argues Heron, was the lack of intellectual property rights. From the New York Times Book Review:

Underlying it all, Rosen argues, was the recognition that ideas themselves have economic value, which is to say, this book isn’t just gearhead wonkery, it’s legal wonkery too. Abraham Lincoln, wondering why Heron’s steam engine languished, claimed that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Rosen agrees, offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it.

In Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, Lewis Hyde is less enthralled with the growth of intellectual property rights. And he cites many of the nation’s founders who, he argues, would be shocked by the extension of the terms of intellectual property rights. (Congress has extended the terms of copyrights, for example, from the original 14 years, which could be renewed once, to the life of the author plus 70 years.) From the New York Times Book Review:

He cites plenty of examples from Hollywood, the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, and the swarm of lobbyists who transform public knowledge into private preserves by manipulating laws for the protection of intellectual property. Then he draws on Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison for arguments against such privatization.

Like Rosen, “Hyde builds his argument by telling stories, and he tells them well. His book brims with vignettes, which may be familiar but complement one other in ways that produce original insights.”

Debates over intellectual property can be fascinating. CRF, along with Street Law, has created Educating About Intellectual Property, a web site with lessons on current issues of intellectual property. Click on curriculum for lessons or on multimedia case studies for downloadable PowerPoint presentations (with interactive curriculum) on high interest subjects (such as Joe Satriani’s claim of copyright infringement against Coldplay or the lawsuit between AP and Shepard Fairey over his Obama Hope Poster).