Poor Richard’s Copyright

Jason Lee Guthrie, “Poor Richard’s Copyright: Benjamin Franklin and the Theorization of Intellectual Property in Colonial America” (paper presented at the American Journalism Historians Association Annual Convention, St. Petersburg, Florida, October 6, 2016).

Benjamin Franklin was the most prolific and profitable author in colonial America, yet his writing career has often been remembered as a footnote to his subsequent scientific and political achievements. Some aspects of his career have been examined such as his pioneering efforts in journalism, his influence upon the American literary aesthetic, and his visionary insight into integrating content creation with distribution networks. However, his understanding of intellectual property remains largely unexplored. This article returns to the extensive primary source material left by Franklin for evidence of his thoughts on plagiarism, academic inquiry, copyright and patent. In doing so, a complex understanding of intellectual property emerges that defies simple categorization and refutes the tendency in some historical work to remember Franklin as “representative” of colonial America or Enlightenment philosophy. This study further illuminates an understanding of Franklin, and informs a historical understanding of problems in the theorization of intellectual property.

Jason Lee Guthrie