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Thomas Jefferson's position on the granting of patents changed through the years. In his article "Godfather of American Invention," Silvio Bedini notes that in 1787 Jefferson's opposition to monopoly in any form led him to oppose patents.1 But by 1789, Jefferson's firm opposition had weakened. Writing to James Madison, Jefferson said he approved the Bill of Rights as far as it went, but would like to see the addition of an article specifying that "Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature and their own inventions in the arts for a term not exceeding —— years but for no longer term and no other purpose."2 Also in 1789, while Jefferson was living in Paris, the first patent act was introduced during the first session of Congress and was then enacted into law on April 10, 1790. Under the new law, the Secretaries of War and State and the Attorney General constituted a three-man review board, with the Secretary of State (Jefferson himself in 1790-1793) playing the leading role. Two months after the law was passed, Jefferson remarked that it had "given a spring to invention" beyond his conception.3
Despite this enthusiasm for the flourishing of American genius, Jefferson found that the administration of patent requests became the most time-consuming of his domestic duties.4 Three patents were granted in 1790, the first to Samuel Hopkins for making pot and pearl ashes. In 1791, Jefferson's office granted 33 patents; in 1792, 11; and in 1793, 20.5 While the number of patents granted was relatively small, there were certainly many more applications, each of which received Jefferson's close attention. Jacob Isaacks, for example, had devised a process for the desalination of sea water, but was ultimately denied a patent.6
By 1791, Jefferson had drafted a bill to relieve himself of all but nominal functions, though what he did with his bill after drafting it is uncertain.7 Jefferson continued to perform his patent office duties until the patent act of February 21, 1793, accomplished the end he had in view in his own bill of 1791. In fact the new law made the granting of patents almost entirely an automatic matter; the three-man review board was replaced by an administrative structure. In 1802, Secretary of State James Madison created a separate patent office for handling all claims. In 1836, the patent law was completely rewritten, effecting a compromise of sorts between the strictness of Jefferson's tenure and the free-wheeling acceptance of all patent claims during the intervening years. The 1836 law is still in effect today.
Guiding Jefferson while patents came to him for review was the belief that patents should be given to particular machines, not to all possible applications or uses of them; that mere change in material or form gave no claim; and that exclusive rights of an invention must always be considered in terms of the invention's social benefit.8
- Russell L. Martin, 4/89
Primary Source References
1790 June 27. (Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan). "An act of Congress authorising the issuing patents for new discoveries has given a spring to invention beyond my conception. Being an instrument in granting the patents, I am acquainted with their discoveries. Many of them indeed are trifling, but there are some of great consequence which have been proved by practice, and others which if they stand the same proof will produce great effect."9
- Matsuura, Jeffrey H. Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: A Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
- Mossoff, Adam. "Who Cares What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Patents - Reevaluating the Patent Privilege in Historical Context." Cornell Law Review 92, no. 5 (2007): 953-1012.
- Jefferson, Thomas. "A Bill to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts (1791)." In PTJ, 22:359-61. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 1. Silvio Bedini, "Godfather of American Invention," in Smithsonian Book of Invention, ed. Alexis Doster et al. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Exposition Books, 1978), 83.
- 2. Jefferson to Madison, August 28, 1789, in PTJ, 15:368. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 3. Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, June 27, 1790, in PTJ, 16:579. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Edward T. Martin, Thomas Jefferson: Scientist (New York: H. Schuman, 1952), 38.
- 4. Malone, Jefferson, 2:281.
- 5. Bedini, "Man of Science," in Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1986), 269.
- 6. See "Experiments in Desalination of Sea Water to Test the Claims of Jacob Isaacks," in PTJ, 19:608-624. Transcriptions available at Founders Online.
- 7. A Bill to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts, [December 1, 1791], in PTJ, 22:359-62. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Malone, Jefferson, 2:285.
- 8. Malone, Jefferson, 2:284.
- 9. PTJ, 16:579. Transcription available at Founders Online.