One of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known contributions to the republic was as first chief of the U.S. Patent Office.
Known for his own ingenious inventions—like a revolving bookcase and a duplicator he called the “polygraph” that was the eighteenth century version of a Xerox machine--in 1790 he was tasked with creating a system that would encourage the development of useful contraptions.
In a letter he wrote in 1813 to Isaac McPherson,
Ideas were essentially free, self-propagating, and could not be restrained once brought to birth.
Today most patents runs twenty years, roughly a generation, while copyrights can last a hundred years or longer (the author’s lifetime plus fifty years). Many would say that’s too long to keep cheap generic drugs off the market, or to give an author or musician a monopoly on their creations.
Thomas Jefferson would agree. Patent laws should create enough profit incentive to spur inventors. But when they impoverish the many to enrich the few, that’s just patent nonsense.