17-Year-Old Aaron Swartz: Thomas Jefferson Would Hate 21st-Century Copyright Laws

Aaron Swartz was a technical genius and activist who killed himself in 2013, at the age of 26, after being aggressively prosecuted for copyright infringement. The new book The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz collects blog posts and other works from Swartz. The blog post below was published on Jan. 12, 2004, when Swartz was 17 and developing his ideas about access to information.

Since many have said that my view of copyright and patent law is childish and held merely because I grew up with Napster and do not write for a living, I thought I’d investigate some more respectable views on the subject. And who better than those of our thoughtful third president, Thomas Jefferson?

Judging from his letter to Isaac McPherson, Jefferson’s thoughts are thus:

No one seriously disputes that property is a good idea, but it’s bizarre to suggest that ideas should be property. Nature clearly wants ideas to be free! While you can keep an idea to yourself, as soon as you share it anyone can have it. And once they do, it’s difficult for them to get rid of it, even if they wanted to. Like air, ideas are incapable of being locked up and hoarded.

And no matter how many people share it, the idea is not diminished. When I hear your idea, I gain knowledge without diminishing anything of yours. In the same way, if you use your candle to light mine, I get light without darkening you. Like fire, ideas can encompass the globe without lessening their density.

Thus, inventions cannot be property. Sure, we can give inventors an exclusive right to profit, perhaps to encourage them to invent new useful things, but this is our choice. If we decide not to, nobody can object.

Accordingly, England was the only country with such a law until the United States copied her. In other countries, monopolies may be granted occasionally by special act, but there is no general system. And this doesn’t seem to have hurt them any—those countries seem just as inventive as ours.

(I am not directly quoting Jefferson here, I am translating what he said to modern English and omitting a bit, but I have not put any words in his mouth—Jefferson said all these things.)

The first thing to note is that Jefferson may have been the first to say, in essence, “Information wants to be free!” (Jefferson attributed this will to nature, not information, but the sentiment was the same.) Thus, all those people who dismiss this claim as absurd have some explaining to do.

The second is that while Jefferson repeatedly says “idea,” his logic applies equally to, say, a catchy tune or phrase and thus pretty much everything we commonly call “intellectual property law” (mostly copyright, trademarks, and patents).

The third is that, surprisingly (especially to me!), Jefferson is just as crazy as I am:

•  By their very nature, ideas cannot be property.

•  The government has no duty to make laws about them.

•  The laws we do make aren’t all that successful.

If Jefferson wasn’t happy with the comparatively modest laws of 1813, can anyone seriously suggest that he wouldn’t be furious with the expansionist laws of today? Forget the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons; Jefferson would be out there advocating armed resistance and impeaching the justices that voted against Eldred! (OK, maybe not, but he’d certainly do more than write copyright licenses.)

It’s true that in Jefferson’s day there were no movies or networks, but there were certainly books and inventions. People made their livelihoods as writers or inventors. It’s difficult to argue that Jefferson would change his mind now on economic grounds—if anything, I suspect that upon seeing the ease of sharing ideas over the Internet, he would argue for less restrictive laws, not more.

Jefferson thought these laws were contrary to human nature when they only affected people with large workshops or commercial printing presses—imagine how angry he would be when he saw that these laws restricted practically everyone, even doing perfectly unobjectionable things (like teaching your AIBOAibo [robot dog] to dance or making a documentary).

Now perhaps folks will find Jefferson as easy an argument for ad hominem attack as they found me. And just because Jefferson said it doesn’t make it true—obviously his views were even the subject of some discussion at the time. But when the suggestions of our third president are called “a ball of self-justification,” “bullshit,” “the far left,” “selfishness,” “shallow,” those of a “moron,” “disgusting,” a “misunderstanding” of the law (!), and “immoral,” you sort of have to stop and wonder: What in the world is going on?

Also in Slate: Read an excerpt from Justin Peters’ new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.