Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: A Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights
Conlin, Michael F., The Journal of Southern History
Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: A Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights. By Jeffrey H. Matsuura. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008. Pp. [xii], 154. $27.95, ISBN 978-0-8139-2771-8.)
In Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls: A Populist Vision of Intellectual Property Rights, Jeffrey H. Matsuura, a patent lawyer and former law professor, makes an impassioned plea for taking a Jeffersonian approach to intellectual property rights in the digital age. Despite dealing with a historical figure and adducing historical evidence, Matsuura makes a decidedly ahistorical argument. The novelty of reading a book focused on Thomas Jefferson that alludes to "YouTube and peer-to-peer file sharing" does not mitigate the jarring juxtaposition of present with past in its pages (p. 12). Matsuura focuses on Jefferson's philosophy and practice because the so-called sage of Monticello was "one of this nation's first major intellectual property rights practitioners" (p. 7). While Matsuura grounds his arguments in Jefferson's words and actions, especially during his tenure as a patent official while secretary of state and relating to his own work as an inventor, the author's main concern is with reforming current American practice.
Jefferson's approach to intellectual property rights was grounded in the belief that a democracy needed "the ability to disseminate knowledge and information widely among its citizens" (p. 37). Jefferson rejected the notion that information sharing was a zero-sum game, an assumption implicit in our current active legal enforcement approach. Instead, Jefferson believed that ideas were improved by sharing. "Knowledge, for Jefferson" Matsuura argues, "is not private, personal property. It is, instead, a communal asset, open and accessible to all" (p. 39). Jefferson wanted ideas to be shared in the public domain where they could be tested and refined so that they would ultimately benefit humankind. …