Monday, August 14, 2006

The 'Wretched Spirit' of Inaccurate Misquotation

Terence Kealey (Times on line, 14 August) makes a case, in ‘Science Notebook’, against the use of patents and while I have little to say about patents, I was struck by his misuse of a quotation from the Adam Smith ‘rent-a-quote’ industry, which as usual misapplies Smith’s words, while gaining some ‘recognition’ points among readers for using his name, in support of a modern argument. He writes:

Patents are a menace. Industrialists lobby for them, but only because industrialists love monopolies. Adam Smith wrote that “men of the same trade seldom meet together, even for the purposes of amusement, but the conversation turns into a conspiracy against the public” and patents are such a conspiracy.”

A conspiracy involves more than one person. An application for a patent involves one person or a legal person in the case of a company. It is not a conspiracy. Merchants do not meet together to decide if one among them can apply for a patent, and it is not uncommon for rival firms on noting a patent has been applied for that gives its owner decided advantages, to work hard at trying to get round it as soon as they can. Again this is not the behaviour of conspirators.

I note also that Kealey’s quote is not quite accurate. He must be a subscriber to the cheaper end of the ‘rent-a-quote’ industry that sells sloppy versions of Adam Smith quotes. He should buy a copy of Wealth of Nations for himself, and read it, even check the sloppy versions sent to him, or use the services of a five-star quotation firm (Science columns are expected to be accurate):

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ (WN I.x.c.27: p 145)

The context in Wealth of Nations is about town guildsmen, small traders, shopkeepers, artisans and merchants, operating in the ‘wretched spirit of monopoly’ by meeting together to conspire. It is not about intellectual property in the 21st century, a quite different case of monopoly.


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