Charles Dickens, Intellectual Property, and Penn

Recently I was reading an article written by Charles Dickens’ great great great granddaughter which advocated for greater intellectual property rights. At the same time, I’ve been following some debates about reforming patent law. What I find interesting in both discussions is the appeal to a long and complicated history of intellectual property dating back to 17th century Europe. In the United States the conversation hinges primarily on one clause of the constitution which permits Congress “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.” (Article 1: Section 8)

There is a contradiction in that clause, however. On the one hand, the constitution seems to be advocating for a closed system that allows “Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” On the other hand, the beginning of the statement says that the purpose of this system is “to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts” which would seem to promote an open structure in which others can build upon previous discoveries and knowledge. Both Dickens’ descendant and current patent reformers make an appeal to history, and both show that the conflict between openness and exclusive rights of authors has not been resolved. What the authors may not realize is that the system we have now is the product of a long struggle which Penn will help to place in a larger context.

The International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property (ISHTIP) will be holding its annual workshop at Penn July 22 – 24, and scholars from around the world will be discussing the concept of openness in intellectual property law, a conversation which is not new to Penn since its founder, Benjamin Franklin, argued that “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” With increasing calls for open culture, open access, and open source methods that the internet allows, this is an important debate, and a historical framework can only help to underscore the importance of the history on which both descendants of Charles Dickens and modern patent reformers rely.

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