Fathers of American Intellectual Property Rights

February 25, 2016

The Beginning of Intellectual Property Rights

When America became an independent nation, its way ahead was unclear. Its economy was mainly agrarian, and the new country was almost wholly dependent on imports to meet many of its needs. Few industries existed. Moreover, no federal system existed through which intellectual property could be protected. In the realm of patents and trademarks, as well as virtually everything else, the Founding Fathers had to build an entirely new system from the ground up.


The Founding Fathers

Particularly well-known Founding Fathers like George Washington and James Madison were early proponents of intellectual property protection. Washington and Madison frequently worked together to secure legislation that was aimed at protecting the rights of inventors. They felt that IP was real property and that the creator of that property had a right to enjoy the benefits of their hard work. It has been recorded that Washington considered the safeguarding of these rights as a basic matter of justice. Perhaps even more importantly, he thought that protecting these rights just might be the key to America attaining economic independence.

George Washington

It was Washington who ensured that Virginia had a copyright law as early as 1785. Similarly, Washington lobbied the governor to patent a mechanical propeller boat that had been developed by inventor James Rumsey. The inventor later received a patent for his work in Virginia and other states as well. It has also been documented that Washington and Madison worked together to create the Constitution's clause that grants "for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Thomas Jefferson

Another Founding Father took an opposing view of IP legislation. Although he was a prolific inventor himself, Thomas Jefferson never sought a patent for any of his work. He refused to protect ingenious devices like his "polygraph" that allowed him to make copies of letters as he penned them and the time-saving revolving service door, arguing that such innovations should be free for all to use. Nonetheless, while Jefferson served as Secretary of State, he was also the head of the Patent Office. 

Despite his philosophical disagreements with restricting the free use of innovations, Jefferson still laid much of the foundation on which the modern IP laws are laid. He instituted regulations designed to encourage innovation rather than restrict it. He also established ground rules concerning what could and could not be patented. For instance, it was Jefferson who decreed that an invention must be useful and original in order to be patented. Jefferson also undertook to test each invention himself. Devices that did not perform as specified were not patented. 

Jefferson's attitude toward protecting IP evolved through his close involvement with the day-to-day operations of the Patent Office. Although the patent prosecution system would become far more freewheeling for several decades after his tenure, many of Jefferson's early tenets are still honored at the USPTO today.

Contact Texas patent attorney Jeff Williams to learn more about protecting your intellectual property rights. Today's system is more complex than the Founding Fathers envisioned, and the guidance of an experienced patent attorney is indispensable to inventors.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner.  He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.   


Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005.  He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree.  He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010.  By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients. 

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