Intellectual Property as a Commons: A Shaker Comparison

by Bill Batt

Arguments have been growing to the effect that many copyrights and patents, viewed today as an intellectual property right, are often questionable public policy. Professor Gar Alperovitz, for example, suggests that many ideas and inventions are for the most part the cumulative and a collective product of many years of creative effort. By this logic, no single person or body ought to be granted exclusive title and reap the often windfall royalties, since most inventions rest on the creativity of countless earlier insights. Bestowing royalties for any creativity that well-situated recipients might have been able to garner is to deny the significance of social contributions that antedate new breakthroughs. Many insights and inventions are joined in advancing new instruments and amenities serving our lives and comforts. Perhaps some wealth resulting from such creativity should go to the inspired creator, but much also ought rightfully to accrue to the community. There is no indication that changes are now in the winds that will alter the inertia maintaining such policies. It is coming to be realized, however, that the equity principles and the public good are not necessarily advanced by the continuation of current patent policy and practices.

The Shaker communities substantially expanded their presence and visibility when they moved from England to the America at the end of the 18th century Their influence was always far greater than their numbers, because they developed a reputation for ingenuity, craftsmanship, and fine taste. Their personal habits were frugal but responsible, their social practices were cooperative and constructive, and their approach to economics and industry was pragmatic and creative. Profit seems always to have a secondary concern. There were at most about 500 Shaker communities identified throughout the nation, their population never cumulatively exceeding 20,000. So in view of their actual numbers, their influence upon what they called “the world” was remarkable.

Central to Shaker life were their religious tenets, one of which was that whatever virtue and fortune grew from their practices was a gift from God. This humility led them to disavow credit for their successes. In principle, the Shakers did not believe in patents, feeling that patent money savored of monopoly and violated the Golden Rule. It would be wrong, they held, “for people of God to take advantage of their fellow creatures by securing patent rights and speculating thereon, as the children of the world generally do.”*

*Edward Deming Andrews, Work and Worship: the Economic Order of the Shakers 1894-1964. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974, p. 175

*Edward Deming Andrews, Work and Worship: the Economic Order of the Shakers 1894-1964. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974, p. 175

The creativity that was manifest in their work could be rewarded by commercial success, but many held the view that profit was not to be bolstered by artificial market devices like patent monopolies. The result was that patents for Shaker creativity were sometimes filed and sometimes not. The historical records that have been unearthed reveal an inconsistent pattern over the course of the 19th century.

As an illustration of their casual attitude toward patents, designs and ideas were freely included in a monthly Shaker publication (1871-1899) that brought income to their communities. According to one writer, this serial publication, The Manifesto, also discussed Shaker religious beliefs, along with agricultural and household tips, poetry and songs.*

*Diana Van Kolken, Introducing the Shakers: an Explanation and Directory. Bowling Green, OH: Gabriel’s Horn Pub. Co., 1985, p. 19

*Diana Van Kolken, Introducing the Shakers: an Explanation and Directory. Bowling Green, OH: Gabriel’s Horn Pub. Co., 1985, p. 19

The most noted invention of Shaker origin is the circular saw. A widely recounted story relates that one Tabitha Babbitt, a member of the Harvard (Massachusetts) settlement, had the idea in 1810 that “the circular-saw blade connecting a round blade to a water-powered machine would be able to cut lumber much more easily. The Shakers community chose not take a patent for this groundbreaking invention. They decided, rather, to share it with the outside world, so everyone could benefit.”* The same author continues by noting,

*Christian Becksvoort; John Sheldon. The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1998, p. 12

*Christian Becksvoort; John Sheldon. The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1998, p. 12

The Shakers considered patents to be monopolistic and contrary to the Christian spirit. They believed that progress should not be hoarded for a few people, and as the circular saw proved, they were generous about sharing their inventions with others. However, hard experience taught the Shakers that patents and trademarks sometimes were unavoidable if they were to protect their economic rights as well as their good name.

Andrews notes that,

If any brother or sister felt it to be right to bring in an invention not then in the Church, he or she had to signify the request in writing, whereupon the matter would be considered first by Elder David Meacham, then by the elders and eldresses, and finally by the ministry. After six months, a decision would be made. As the economy expanded, however, the society became less scrupulous and eventually welcomed improvements, either its own or those originating in the world. One of Joseph Meacham’s “way-marks,” they may have recalled, was on this very subject:

(Elder Meacham further wrote) “We have a Right to use or improve the Inventions of man so far as is useful and necessary but not to Vain Glory or anything superfluous … Order and Conveniency and Deacency [sic] in things Temporal is also becoming the Church so far as may be for the Honor of the Testimony and their own and others good….”

The ability of the Shakers to ascertain what under heaven ought to be held in common and what should be held privately was clearly an attractive dimension of their philosophy and community design. Land titles also were held by the community in trust rather than by individual members. The cohesion of the Shaker settlements was no doubt strengthened by their adherence and respect for a common realm. In spite of their insulation from the wider community and their abstention from sex, reliance solely upon voluntary enlistment and retention, and frugal lifestyles, their success for so long a time shows that such arrangements had continuing appeal, especially considering the fissiparous inclinations of Americans.

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