Invention: A Capitalist Monopoly

Recently in a London Police Court an Engineer was charged with stealing two sheets of drawing paper belonging to his employers. The employers, however, were not so much interested in obtaining the paper as the drawings it bore. Property in drawings on paper is not defined by law, but the right to such property has been frequently asserted by enforcing the right to the paper. In this case the defendant had been sent to inspect the exhibits at Olympia Motor Exhibition, and as the result of these visits “at his employers’ directions and expense” he developed ideas for the invention of a new gear box, the rough sketch of which he outlined on paper, “doing his drawing work in his employers’ time, at his employers’ office, with his employers’ materials.” The magistrate notwithstanding discharged the defendant, it being in his judgment “impossible to say that any invention which might earn £1000 a year belonged to those who paid the inventor £3 a week.”

Now this form of property comes under the classification of “Intellectual Property,” and it will be observed that the right to such property is not legally defined, being, as the plaintiff’s solicitor put it, “as in the dark ages.” Neither did the magistrate give judgment in favour of the defendant as a matter of principle, but solely in consideration of the comparative insignificance of his salary.

Why is the right to intellectual property so ill-defined? Lafargue, in an admirable little pamphlet entitled “Le Socialisme et Les Intellectuals” touches upon this subject. He says :

“Material property, whatever may be its origin, is declared eternal by capitalist law : it is assured for ever to its possessor, handed down from father to son until the end of time, no power, civil or political, being able to lay sacrilegious hands upon it.

. . . . . . .

“Capitalist law has none of these considerations for intellectual property. Literary and artistic property, the only forms which the law protects, have but a precarious duration, limited (in France) to the life time of the author, and to a certain period after his death; 50 years according to the latest legislation. This moment passed, the right succumbs and falls in the public way : so that from March of the present year (1900) publishers can enrich themselves by publishing the works of Balzac, the genius of romantic literature.

“Literary property, if of importance to publishers, in reality not a very numerous class, does not yield any profit to the capitalists as a whole; but it is not thus with the property in inventions, which is of supreme importance to the industrial and commercial capitalists together. Likewise the law extends no protection whatever to it. The inventor, if he desires to defend his intellectual property against the bourgeois plunderers, must begin by buying this right by taking out a patent, which must be renewed annually. One day behind time in paying the tax, his intellectual property becomes the legitimate prey of the capitalist robbers. Even while paying this sum regularly his right is limited to 14 years (in France). During this short number of years, generally insufficient to have his invention completely adopted in practical industry ; it is he, the inventor, who at his own expense must put the legal machinery against the bourgeois plunderers who would seize it.

“The ‘trade mark,’ which is a form of capitalist property, never having demanded any intellectual effort, is on the contrary indefinitely protected by law like material property.

“The capitalist has only grudgingly granted to the inventor the right to defend his intellectual property, because by his right of reigning class, he believes himself master of the fruits of intellectual labour as well as of manual labour, just as the feudal lord arrogated to himself the right of possession over the property of his serfs.

. . . . . . .

“The capitalist-class, the most revolutionary class that has ever oppressed human society, cannot increase its riches but by incessantly revolutionising the means of production by the never-ending introduction of new applications of the mechanical, physical, and chemical sciences to the industrial tool. Its thirst for inventions is so insatiable that it has created factories of inventions. Several American capitalists have associated in organising at Mungo Park, for Edison, the most marvellous laboratory in the world. Here they have placed at his disposition an army of scientists, the aristocrats of labour, and the material means necessary to make and continue making the inventions that the capitalists patent, exploit, or sell. Edison, who is himself one of the sharpest of business men, has, however, taken precautions in order to insure his participation in the profits which the inventions of Mungo Park will yield.

”But all inventors cannot, like Edison, impose their conditions on the capitalists who build factories of inventions to exploit them. The Thompson-Houston Company at Paris, Siemens in London and Berlin, have, side by side with their electrical machinery, workshops and laboratories where engineers are engaged in research work, seeking new applications of electricity. At Frankfort in the factory of aniline colours, the largest in the world, and where the mineral antipyrine was discovered, there are more than one hundred chemists paid to discover new chemical products. Each discovery is immediately patented by the firm, which, by way of encouragement, gives some reward to the inventor.

“To a certain point we can consider all factories and workshops as laboratories of inventions, because a considerable number of improvements in machinery have been found out by the workmen in the course of work. As the inventor has not the necessary money to patent or apply his discovery, the employer takes out the patent in his own name, and thus, as bourgeois justice wishes it, it is he who gathers all the accruing profits therefrom. When the government thinks of rewarding talent it is the employer who is rewarded; the workman inventor, who is but an “intellectual,” continues toiling on as before, and as in this capitalist world one must be contented with little, he consoles himself in his misery, saying that his invention brings profit and honour to his master.

. . . . . . .

“Will the intellectuals yet hear the voice of the Socialists calling them to the rescue to free Science and Art from the capitalist yoke, and liberate thought from the slavery of wagedom ?”


(Socialist Standard, May 1905)

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