Timeless: The US Constitution
Timeless: The US Constitution

By Erik Telford | The Franklin Center

When the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution 226 years ago, they couldn’t have imagined the complex, technology-driven society that our young nation would grow into.

The America of 2013 faces an entirely different set of legal challenges than the America of 1789 did, but the principles of the Constitution are timeless, and that thin piece of parchment now resting in the National Archives is just as relevant today as it was in the 18th century.

It’s a testament to the wisdom and ingenuity of the founders that the Constitution includes protections for scientists, artists, and other creators. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 reads, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” When politicians squabble over intellectual property law, they ought to turn back to this clause, which has made America a safe place for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Copyright law has become more complex as today’s innovations are increasingly intangible, but the same protections afforded by the Constitution to physical property are extended to technological advances and other forms of intellectual property.

The “copyright clause” encourages creative minds to take risks by enshrining the basic, unalienable right of creators to what they have created. Without these protections, entrepreneurs would have little incentive to invest millions of dollars and years of time into building new products. These innovations, which range from music and literature to software and medicine, improve lives, create jobs, drive commerce and help grow and expand the economy.

Without constitutional protection for intellectual property, a new invention — let’s say a cutting-edge smartphone — could be replicated and sold by anyone who got their hands on the technology. Although this would help foster marketplace competition, it would render the innovator’s years of research, development, and testing useless, and leave him with no way to recover his investment, let alone make a profit.

By granting creators exclusive rights to market what they create, however, the Constitution opens the market up and allows consumers to reward producers for their work. Inventors of popular products can quickly recover their research and development costs, and can use their profit to develop even better technology, creating more jobs and further improving society in the process.

Thanks to the founders’ foresight, the United States has the second-strongest intellectual property protections in the world. These protections attract the world’s best and the brightest scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs, and are responsible for an estimated 40 million jobs. By some metrics, intellectual property protections are responsible for about two-thirds of our national exports and one-third of our gross domestic product.

Intellectual property laws as they apply to digital-age technology may be a new subject of debate, but Americans should have a sense of pride that their founders not only anticipated this problem in the 1780s, but outlined the right solution. Today’s technological advancements were made possible by strong intellectual property protections for developers, and any attack on these protections would cut to the core of our economy, Constitution and American system of free enterprise.

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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