Who Cares What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Patents? Reevaluating the Patent 'Privilege' in Historical Context

60 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2006

See all articles by Adam Mossoff

Adam Mossoff

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School


The conventional wisdom holds that American patents have always been grants of special monopoly privileges lacking any justification in natural rights philosophy, a belief based in oft-repeated citations to Thomas Jefferson's writings on patents. Using 'privilege' as a fulcrum in its analysis, this Article reveals that the history of early American patent law has been widely misunderstood and misused. In canvassing primary historical sources, including political and legal treatises, Founders' writings, congressional reports, and long-forgotten court decisions, it explains how patent rights were defined and enforced under the social contract doctrine and labor theory of property of natural rights philosophy. In the antebellum years, patents were civil rights securing important property rights -- what natural-rights-influenced politicians and jurists called 'privileges.'

This intellectual history situates the Copyright and Patent Clause, the early patent statutes, and nineteenth-century patent case law within their appropriate political and constitutional context. In so doing, it resolves many conundrums arising from misinterpretation of the historical patent privilege. Doctrinally, it explains why Congress and courts in the early nineteenth century expansively and liberally construed patent rights, and did not limit patents in the same way they narrowly construed commercial monopoly grants, such as bridge franchises. It also exposes the near-universal misuse of history by lawyers and scholars today, who rely on Jefferson as undisputed historical authority in critiquing expansive intellectual property protections today. Ultimately, the conventional wisdom is a historical myth that obscures the early development of American patent law under the meaningful guidance of natural rights philosophy.

Keywords: patents, intellectual property, Thomas Jefferson, constitutional law, intellectual history, natural rights

Suggested Citation

Mossoff, Adam, Who Cares What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Patents? Reevaluating the Patent 'Privilege' in Historical Context. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 92, p. 953, 2007, MSU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 03-21, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=892062

Adam Mossoff (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School ( email )

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Arlington, VA 22201
United States
703-993-9577 (Phone)

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