Jefferson’s Taper at IPSC 2018 (Berkeley)


In researching my in-progress monograph on value pluralism in knowledge governance, I made a fascinating discovery about the history of ideas of American intellectual property law. That discovery is now the basis of an article-length project, which I am presenting today at the annual Intellectual Property Scholars Conference, hosted this year at UC Berkeley. The long title is “Jefferson’s Taper and Cicero’s Lumen: A Genealogy of Intellectual Property’s Distributive Ethos,” but I’ve taken to referring to it by the shorthand “Jefferson’s Taper.” Here’s the abstract:

This Article reports a new discovery concerning the intellectual genealogy of one of American intellectual property law’s most important texts. The text is Thomas Jefferson’s 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the absence of a natural right to property in inventions, metaphorically illustrated by a “taper” that spreads light from one person to another without diminishing the light at its source. I demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson directly copied this Parable of the Taper from a nearly identical parable in Cicero’s De Officiis, and I show how this borrowing situates Jefferson’s thoughts on intellectual property firmly within a natural law tradition that others have cited as inconsistent with Jefferson’s views. I further demonstrate how that natural law tradition rests on a classical, pre-Enlightenment notion of distributive justice in which distribution of resources is a matter of private beneficence guided by a principle of proportionality to the merit of the recipient. I then review the ways that notion differs from the modern, post-Enlightenment notion of distributive justice as a collective social obligation that proceeds from an initial assumption of human equality. Jefferson’s lifetime correlates with a historical pivot in the intellectual history of the West from the classical notion to the modern notion, and I argue that his invocation and interpretation of the Parable of the Taper reflect this mixing of traditions. Finally, I discuss the implications of both theories of distributive justice for the law and policy of knowledge governance—including but not limited to intellectual property law—and propose that the debate between classical and modern distributivists is more central to policy design than the familiar debate between utilitarians and Lockeans.

Slides for the presentation are available here.

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