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Leonard Read on Copyright and the Role of Ideas

One of the most influential figures behind the modern libertarian movement was Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education. (I discuss Read’s role in the origin of modern libertarianism (and in adoption of the term “libertarian”) in my post The Origin of “Libertarianism”.) I read a great deal of his books 20-30 years ago, as well a The Freeman. By the time I read Read I was already libertarian, so can’t myself claim him as a big influence, though many others have come into libertarianism via Read (others via Friedman, Rothbard, Rand, Mises). But I read several of his books and profited from it.

Recently I was reading through some of the Read books I hadn’t read for over 20 years, and noticed some perspicacious comments on the topics of copyright and intellectual property, in his 1972 book To Free or Freeze, in the short chapter 18, “On Plagiarism,” which I reprint in full below. I bolded a few choice comments, but notice his early recognition of why IP is not natural and property rights are not applicable to information and ideas:

18: On Plagiarism

There is a difference between imitating a good man and counterfeiting him.

THE DICTIONARY defines plagiarism: “to take and pass off as one’s own (the ideas, writings, etc. of another).” At first blush, the plagiarist appears to be a despicable cad-nothing less than a thief. But perhaps this is too hasty a judgment.

What makes plagiarism a vice is knowingly to pass off as one’s own the ideas and writings of another, that is, to make a liar of self. For it is easily demonstrable that practically every idea we espouse and pass off as our own is unknowingly taken from others. Indeed, were this not the case, that is, were we to traffic exclusively in our own original ideas and writings—ideas never thought of by anyone else before—communication would come to a near halt. A few observations on this point:

  • Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.
  • One couldn’t carry on life comfortably without a little blindness to the fact that everything has been said better than we can put it ourselves.
  • People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born the world begins to work upon us; and this goes on to the end. And, after all, what can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that l owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor.
  • Originality is simply a pair of fresh eyes.
  • If we can advance propositions both true and new, these are our own by right of discovery; and if we can repeat what is old, more briefly and brightly than others, this also becomes our own, by right of conquest.
  • It is almost impossible for anyone who reads much, and reflects a good deal, to be able, on every occasion, to determine whether a thought was another’s or his own. I have several times quoted sentences out of my own writings, in aid of my own arguments, in conversation, thinking that I was supporting them by some better authority!
  • Those writers who lie on the watch for novelty can have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.
  • It is not strange that remembered ideas should often take advantage of the crowd of thoughts and smuggle themselves in as original. Honest thinkers are always stealing unconsciously from each other. Our minds are full of waifs and estrays which we think our own. Innocent plagiarism turns up everywhere. Literature is full of coincidences. There are thoughts always abroad in the air which it takes more wit to avoid than to hit upon.
  • Plagiarists have, at least, the merit of preservation.

The background of these nine observations has an interesting instruction for us. Upon deciding to explore this topic, I turned to The Dictionary of Thought, selecting the quotations which more or less squared with my own thinking on originality and plagiarism, opinions I believed to have been more or less my own. Not one of these observations am I aware of having read before. Now, had I not discovered what others had written and had I put these same thoughts in my own phrasing, I would have been unknowingly taking from others. Not a thing wrong with that—nothing, whatsoever; it would have had “at least the merit of preservation.” On the other hand, suppose that after discovering these observations I had used the exact phrasing and claimed them as my own! What a liar! Such a tactic would have done no harm to those authors who live only in our memory and no offense to my readers. Just self-injury!

Finding the original of a given idea probably is not possible. For instance, in October 1970 a book of mine was published entitled Talking to Myself. Some months later, the celebrated Pearl Bailey’s Talking to Myself was announced. It is a reasonable certainty that neither of us took the title from the other; it simply occurred to both of us at the same time. Such is the synchronistic nature of ideas occurring to different minds simultaneously. The record is studded with examples. The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, wrote a book on this phenomenon: Synchronicity.

Equally phenomenal is the way in which ideas develop. We hear or read an idea new to us. It insinuates itself into the subconscious or some womb of the mind, goes through a period of gestation for days, weeks, or years and, if it does not die in embryo, emerges as one’s very own—an “original.” I have been able to identify such “originals” in my own experience, the gestation periods ranging from six months to thirty years.

There is, in fact, no way to fasten ownership claims to an idea, which is spiritual, as we do with material things—copyright laws and legal jargon to the contrary notwithstanding. Might as well try to draw property lines around a cloud or a wish or a dream or Creation. Ideas are forever in a state of fusion and/or flux and they defy any precise earmarking.

One might conclude that this evaluation is at odds with the free market, private ownership way of life which, of course, lays stress on the profit motive—and, quite properly. This, however, is to gloss over the fact that there are two kinds of profit: psychic and monetary, the former being no less a motivator of creative action than the latter. And no less rewarding!

Robert Louis Stevenson gave us this aphorism: “I take my milk from many cows but I make my own butter.” And I do precisely the same, my “butter” being a nonprescriptive philosophy: no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative energy.

Do I resent the taking and using of my ideas by others? To the contrary, the more others adopt them the greater is my satisfaction: psychic profit. Suppose my ideas on liberty were so widely accepted by others that freedom might prevail as our way of life. I would prefer this above all the dollars in Christendom. And as for credit, I couldn’t care less. Personal fame is of small consequence in contrast with individual liberty and equal opportunity for all, even from the standpoint of pure self-interest. I fare well precisely because others do.

And speaking of fare, one of my hobbies is cooking. I have taken my milk from many cows—culinary artists—but now and then “ad lib,” adding a spice or herb or a touch of this and that which imparts gastronomic novelty. When an appreciative guest expresses a desire for the recipe, it is given with the greatest of pleasure; never withheld as my monopoly. First, there is a psychic profit in this giving, sufficient unto itself. And, second, should I dine at that other person’s table, his or her best fare will be served to me.

The same principle of exchange and sharing elevates ideas just as it improves the quality of food. The more I share ideas with others, the more and better are my own, and the better are the ones offered to me. This is the process of putting the best foot forward.

Ideas come from we know not where; they are of a spiritual nature. When we receive and understand them they are ours or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say we are theirs. In any event, good ideas are not to be put in storage but are to be shared—as freely given as received.

Unsurprisingly, Read was also a p

Jeff Tucker, in The Works of Leonard E. Read, noted Leonard Read’s pioneering open-source vision:

The works of Leonard E. Read, who founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1946, are now online at the Mises Institute. It is probably not the complete collected works, but it is all that he collected in book form. These are books that shaped several generations of activists, donors, writers, and intellectuals. They are the books that kick-started the libertarian movement after World War II. The sons of FEE went on to do great good for the world, and FEE is often called the father of all libertarian think tanks — institutions that work outside official academia to advance radical ideas.

Read did more than merely sponsor lectures and publish. As a matter of fact, others were doing the same. So far as I know, no one has yet noticed that he used a secret weapon in his struggle, something that made him truly different and unusually effective. He eschewed the use of exclusive copyright. That is to say, he encouraged the widest possible distribution of his work and did not forbid others from copying his infinitely reproducible ideas.

Pick up any book or publication from FEE before the 1990s. You will see a remarkable and visionary sentence on the copyright page:

Permission to reprint granted without special request.

This one sentence is what made it happen. Any newspaper could print a column. Any publisher could include an essay. Indeed, he invited any publisher to take any FEE book and publish it and sell it, owing no royalties and asking no permissions.

“He was an evangelist spreading the news. He wanted to be pirated so that he could see that he was making a difference.”

The publisher was not even asked to acknowledge its source! So, in this sense, he was even more radical than the Creative Commons attribution license.

(See also Tucker’s Leonard Read’s Open-Source Vision.)1


  1. See Jeffrey Tucker, “A Theory of Open“; Doug French, “The Intellectual Revolution Is in Process“; Jeffrey Tucker, and “up with iTunes U“; Kinsella, “Teaching an Online Mises Academy Course”; Kinsella, “Fifteen Minutes that Changed Libertarian Publishing“; Gary North, “A Free Week-Long Economics Seminar”. []
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