Skip to comments.Ben Franklin’s Greatest Invention
Posted on 12/08/2005 11:07:42 PM PST by Congressman Billybob
Even today, sources on inventions list six by Franklin that are still in active use today. One of those sits in my back hall, cheerfully and economically heating the back of my home the Franklin stove. Another sits on the bridge of my nose as I write this a pair of bifocals. But this is about Franklins greatest invention, one that the lists never mention because it is mere words, not a physical object.
Franklin made seven trips to Europe, as a diplomat and scholar. He was welcomed into all the learned societies that existed in Europe then. One of the things he learned on those trips was that creative people were being cheated out of the financial benefits of their creations. When the novels of Charles Dickens became popular, printers other than his own simply reset the type and republished the books, without a cent in royalties to the author. When Thomas Paines design for a cast iron bridge became known (and remained the standard until the advent of the use of steel in the 20th century), others copied the design without a cent in royalties being paid.
Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly the nations greatest political philosopher, in a group where the competition for that accolade was very high. But Franklin was the nations greatest practical philosopher. He recognized that the building of a nation required the creation of a form of fastest possible communication among its parts. So he created the first Post Office, and also served as the first Postmaster. Were Franklin to return, he would recognize in a trice how the Internet works and why it is important. On his second day back, he would have a blog entitled Poor Richards Almanack.
But even the Post Office, which led inexorably to the Internet, was not Franklins greatest invention. He thought about the problem of creative people being encouraged to develop new creations. He understood the importance of good, old-fashioned financial incentives. He suggested to James Madison the following 27-word clause to be added to the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8. With little debate and no objection, since it came from the respected scientist, it was added to the Constitution:
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;....
What is the importance of that clause? The US is only a small fraction of the worlds population. There are other, highly developed nations, with their own great universities. Still, more than three-fourths of all the worlds patents, copyrights, and trademarks are issued annually to Americans.
Is it because Americans are a special breed of human beings, better able to understand complexities and see the shape of the future? Comparisons of American students with their counterparts at all ages in other developed nations should quickly dispel that notion.
No, it is Franklins invention of this clause that has caused the explosion of American creativity, which began with the founding of the nation, and has shown no signs of slowing down in the two and a quarter centuries since. By giving a temporary monopoly to inventors like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, it unleashed their abilities to redirect economic history. It unleashed the abilities of writers and creators like Mark Twain and Steven Spielberg to redirect literary and cinematic history.
(And one of the great diplomatic challenges of our times is to get certain nations to stop stealing the results of that creativity, by stealing the developments and reproducing them exactly the way everyone was stealing all inventors works, when Franklin toured the learned societies of Europe, three centuries ago.)
Where did Franklin get the idea for this powerful clause, the one that is the engine behind the economic miracle of the United States of America? Every other clause in the Constitution has its progenitors in the works of Baron Montesquieu, John Locke, and other political and historical writers known to the Framers of the Constitution. This clause, and this one alone, has no ancestor.
Franklin saw the problem as it existed in the rest of the world. Franklin recognized that providing an economic incentive would encourage inventors and creators. And he also recognized that it must be temporary, for limited times, since he was aware of permanent monopolies such as the salt monopoly in the Ottoman empire, which were benefits for preferred supporters of the ruler.
In short, Franklins invention of this clause led to the current status of the American economy as the most powerful economic engine in history. And that is no small achievement.
About the Author: John Armor is a First Amendment attorney and author who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. John_Armor@aya.yale.edu
John / Billybob
Very intersting!! If Ben were alive today, one can only imagine what his stock would be going for. The man was amazing.
My favorite Franklin quote:
"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
And I always thought it was hanging out a window buck-nekkid and having an "air-bath."
BTT, and thank you for a fascinating item. Ben also developed the beginnings of the modern battery and proved in Paris that a fellow in his 70's could cuckold a generation of young Frenchmen. My hero!
Franklin made this contribution when he was in his late seventies.
Fine work. BTTT.
Thanks for beating the drum regarding Franklin and recognition of intellectual property (IP) rights. In reading constitutions of other governments, you may occasionally encounter references to property and rights. I have yet to find another constitution which recognizes intellectual property. I believe the reward and protection of IP is one of the most powerful elements contributing to the success of our country.
Unfortunately, our Congress has taken the clause to justify policies which are harmful to developments in the arts and sciences. Suppose, in the year 2100, I find a piece of work with a notice "Copyright 1980 John Smith". A copyright search finds nothing. By what means could I determine whether the work is in the public domain?
Indeed it is. The little clause from Franklin that established the concept of intellectual property generated a profound and overwhelmingly positive result over the ensuing decades.
The great problem faced today by American inventors and authors is that the disgusting corrupt porcine polticos of the bi-factional ruling party could care less about the utter disregard of US intellectual property by our supposed "favored trading partners" in China and elsewhere. Instead, they just keep on selling US citizens out at every opportunity.
Perhaps some creative inventor will come up with fast-track a tar-and-feathering device for members of congress. That would be a most worthwhile endeavor.
Wonderful! Thanks so much for posting it.
Ben is my favorite founding father. Regardless of how much I study, I still learn more about him.
Thanks for the article!
I get a genuine sense of pride and security every time I send another bunch of my daughter's songs off to the Library of Congress for copyright registration.
I like Franklin... especially when I have a stack of small oval portraits of him.
Didn't he invent the internet?
Bump for reading my mind!
Life of author plus seventy years, with no registration requirement. Which leads to my question: if a piece of work is labeled "Copyright 1980 John Smith", how could someone in 2100 determine whether the author had died before 2030?
Enjoyed it. Thank you!
What's that other quote from him about bedding an older woman?
No. Al Gore invented the Internet.
Exactly! Very good read!
There are several gems on that one:
On the Choice of a Mistress
by Ben Franklin
[he recommends choosing an older, not necessarily pretty wife]
1. Because they have more Knowledge of the world, and their Minds are better stored with Observations; their Conversation is more improving, and more lastingly agreeable.
2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of utility. They learn to do a thousand Services, small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.
3. Because there is no hazard of children, which irregularly procured may be attended with much inconvenience.
4. Because through more Experience they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your reputation; and with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclined to excuse an old Woman, who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his manners by her good Councils, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.
5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part. The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower parts continuing to the last as plump as ever; so that covering all above with a Basket, and reggarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old one from a young one. And as in the Dark all Cats are gray, the Pleasure of Corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal and frequently superior; every Knack being by Practice capable of improvement.
6. Because the sin is less. The Debouching of a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her Life unhappy.
7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend making an old Woman happy.
8th & lastly. They are so grateful!!!"
And if you have any sitting around and want to clear up space send the overage to me.
My Uncle Ben....Amazing man with two years of schooling.
What's the source for this statistic? The reason that I ask is because I was looking at this table at the USPTO just the other day. It shows that for the period from 1963 through 2004, 3,748,103 U.S. patents have been granted, and that 40% were of foreign origin -- and that in 2004, 48% of all U.S. patents granted were of foreign origin. (Extrapolating from the data in the table, my guess would be that figure will be over 50% within a few more years.)
There was a story from USA Today on December 6th Search for the most prolific inventors is a patent struggle which cataloged the author's difficulty in ascertaining what living person holds the most U.S. patents. It turns out that the best guess may be the owner of Tokyo's Semiconductor Energy Laboratory, Shunpei Yamazaki of Japan, who apparently holds 1,432 U.S. patents (Thomas Edison apparently held 1,093 according to this article.)
Great insight, Billybob. Thanks!
IIRC under the Corrupt Clinton Regime there was a movement afoot to change our patent and copyright laws to align with the more monopolistic and stifling European version.
Is my memory correct? And if so, what finally transpired?
Much more than a tinge, I would say.
With AIDS killing by the millions, countries are put to a decision about whether to respect a patent or save the citizenry. Bleeding heart that I am, I am all for the latter -- without lengthy negotiation with any corporate protector.
Protecting the writings of David Baldacci is "morality" with a little 'm'. Saving the lives of millions is "morality" with a giant 'M'.
It would be most interesting to see how the mind of Franklin would deal with the dilemma.
Anyone know when the royalties from imported scotch ends for the Kennedys? How did they get that unbelievable deal in the first place?
Whether to respect a patent or knock-off the drugs.
You are tremendously ill-informed about Africa. It is impossible to haved a dialogue with you when you make statements as silly as this one.
I am open to education. Please tell me how my statement is silly.
Hell's Bells...they can't even feed themselves, run a "gubmint", etc etc from middle Africa down...So.Africa has been on the road to perdition since TUTU got the prize.....jmho......
Just as Congress keeps bumping up the time limit to the point where it is nearing a "limit" of 100 years, as a benefit to their preferred supporters in Disney and Hollywood.
I like this article. It told me something important I didn't know - that Franklin's invention of creators' rights was the key to America's idea prosperity.
But what did Bill Gates invent? I thought he took Steve Jobs' "user-friendly" concept of computer operating systems and ran with it.
Excellent! I wish Americans understood the importance of patent and copyright laws, without which no one would spend a dime on R&D for new medicine or technological innovations and without which artists would be unable to make a living as artists (would Pink Floyd have written, recorded and produced Dark Side of the Moon if they would have only sold a handful of copies that would then be downloadable for free by everyone?).
Did Franklin really write that?
Here's some excerpts:
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the concept of property rights goes back (at least) to the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments. Most other religions and cultural traditions also have deep-rooted convictions about property rights.
On the other hand, patent and copyright - protections for products of the mind - are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first patents and copyrights were issued in Venice in the 16th Century. At the time, Venice was a declining city-state that was slowly losing its trade hegemony to Florence and other rising powers. It devised copyrights, and then patents, as a means to attract the best and brightest of Europe to Venice. The Venetians offered authors and inventors a unique arrangement: the State would grant them a limited period of exclusivity that guaranteed a profit for their labors; in return they agreed to release their creations to the State once the grant had expired. It is important to note that this agreement was to be backed up with State power - those who encroached upon the grant of exclusivity would be punished by the State.
The Venetian innovation was extremely successful, and it quickly spread throughout Europe. However, patents and copyright were gradually perverted by the absolute monarchies of France and England. In England they degenerated into a "spoils" system used by the King to reward loyal cronies and rich benefactors. One needed a royal grant of copyright to operate a printing press for any purpose, and this led to a clever form of private censorship: by ensuring that all printing presses were in the hands of loyalists, the King could disavow any direct involvement in efforts to suppress dissenting opinions. Patents were used in a similar manner to ensure that trade and commerce were controlled by those loyal to the King.
In return for their continued loyalty, publishers (the primary holders of copyright) began to assert and demand ever more rights. In particular, they began to assert that authors ceded their rights to the publishers in perpetuity. They began to demand natural law property rights.
In 1709 Parliament passed the first modern copyright law, the Statute of Anne, which vested a 14-year statutory copyright in authors. The publishers vigorously fought this statute, first asking the judiciary to invalidate the statute, and then by seeking a judicial declaration that this act merely supplemented a pre-existing natural law copyright that authors could cede to publishers in perpetuity. However, in 1744 the House of Lords rejected this assertion, held that no natural law copyright existed, and that copyright was a purely statutory right created for a purely utilitarian purpose.
To America's Founding Fathers, all of this was recent history, they were very much aware of this debate, and it influenced their crafting of both the copyright clause and the First Amendment. In particular, the Founding Fathers:
- Placed ultimate control over patent and copyright in the hands of the legislative branch - not the executive.
- Stated that patents and copyrights were to be granted for "Limited Times" - a crucial distinction between a statutory right and a natural law property right.
- Established a purely utilitarian purpose for these statutory rights: "To Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts."
By clearing stating a public purpose for patents and copyrights, the Founding Fathers took them completely out of the realm of natural law property rights.
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