A little less than a year ago, I made a startling discovery about Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation on the nature of ideas, which (he argued) spread like fire from one person to the next without diminishing the possession of anyone who shares them. As I discovered, Jefferson copied this metaphor from a nearly identical passage in Cicero’s De Officiis–a work of philosophy that was once one of the world’s most widely-read books, but which today few people have even heard of. As I mined out the implications of Jefferson’s unattributed borrowing, I came to conclude that we have been misreading him for almost a hundred years. Rather than making a proto-utilitarian argument in favor of a limited system of patent rights, Jefferson was instead making a natural law argument–exactly the type of argument that his modern-day detractors rely on to support their policy prescriptions regarding the scope of intellectual property rights. And in fact, gaming out the implications of Jefferson’s natural law argument leads to the conclusion that knowledge creators may actually have some obligations to share their knowledge, rooted in a particular pre-Enlightenment conception of natural law and distributive justice.
Doing the work of fleshing out these implications required me to immerse myself in some old and (to me) unfamiliar philosophical sources for much of the past year. The result is the most “scholarly” work of scholarship I think I’ve ever produced: Jefferson’s Taper, now in draft on SSRN, and hopefully coming soon to a law review near you. This was a ton of fun to research and write; I think it is going to surprise a fair number of people. Comments, as always, are most welcome.