The Knot-Hole in the Fence.

The Knot-Hole in the Fence.

Did Mr. Yarros ever go to a horse-race? If so, perchance he has seen two horses run neck and neck for the first half-mile, and then one so outstrip the other that its rider could afford to slow up on the home-stretch in order to make things more interesting at the finish. In such a case the rider of the winning horse would be very likely to say to his opponent after the race: You pushed me hard at first; I had to be lively to keep you from passing me; but, when you fell behind after the half-mile post, I saw that I was an easy winner, and I played with you a bit toward the end. But you have a good horse there all the same. If, however, this rider had spoken before the end of the race instead of after it (supposing such a thing to be compatible with the conditions of a horse-race), he probably would not have told his opponent that he was raising his hopes only to dash them the more effectually, but, partly to mask his own playful little plan, he would have addressed his adversary, as he allowed him to approach, somewhat in this wise: You are a good one; you are giving me a close race, and you may win it yet; but, if you do, I shall have had some good sport and a good lesson, for a race that keeps one on his mettle is the kind of race that I like and profit by. I trust that this illustration will make it plain to Mr. Yarros that my recognition of the ability of my opponents in this copyright discussion and my subsequent confession that at the same time I was so full of confidence that I finally toyed a little with at least one of them do not involve the inconsistency which Mr. Yarros strives to make apparent at the beginning of his article on another page, and that, after the disappearance of this seeming inconsistency, the edge of his sarcasm becomes a trifle dull.

I shall try to be brief in dealing with the rest of what Mr. Yarros has to say in the fifth and longest of a series of articles the third of which was the probably final one.

To begin at the end, I will say simply of his comments on Tak Kak, whom I shall leave to reply for himself in his own incomparable way, that those who have read Tak Kak’s articles understandingly know that they contain something more than assertions, and that it is impolitic, to say the least, to lightly dismiss as such the words of a writer whom none of us surpass in the comprehension of Anarchism.

It is erroneous to say that I, in using the possible destruction of Spencer’s works as a reductio ad absurdum of property in ideas, assumed that Spencer’s works belong to the world. I assumed simply that the world possesses them and that this possession makes for the world’s happiness. If Mr. Yarros knows the difference between possession and ownership, he will not dispute this assumption. The assumption granted, then I argue that property in ideas, since it might lead to dispossessing the world of Spencer’s works, does not make for happiness, and further that, if such property is based on equal liberty (which I deny), then in at least one instance equal liberty does not make for happiness. If there is any question-begging here, I fail to see it.

To anticipate the possible objection to the foregoing paragraph that a thief may similarly argue against property in coats from the standpoint that continued possession of the coat which he has stolen makes for his happiness, I will explain that the thief’s argument is sound provided he is strong enough to maintain his possession and provided he is correct in his estimate of the conditions of happiness.

I apprehend that one of the most serious differences between Mr. Yarros and myself turns upon this point of correctly estimating the conditions of happiness. For instance, in the matter of philosophers: despite the fact that he would allow them a copyright while I would not, I place a much higher value upon them than he does. I cannot agree that the destruction of the works of the greatest of them could never amount to a great social calamity. The world, in my opinion, could more easily put up with a half-dozen French Revolutions and a few earthquakes thrown in than with the permanent loss of the works of Spencer or the works of Shakspere. But I quite agree with Mr. Yarros that the greatest of them is not sufficiently great to have the whole civilized world at his mercy, and that is one of the reasons why I would deny him a monopoly of the ideas he has discovered. To those who agree with my high estimate of philosophers my reductio ad absurdum is conclusive; I readily admit that it can have no force with those who take them at Mr. Yarros’s comparatively light valuation. But it is not affected at all by the claim that it is impossible to destroy a really valuable book. Does a book exist, in any vital sense, simply because a few copies are straying about in odd corners of the world? Not at all. A book really exists only when it is actively in the market, and it is an easy matter to remove a book from the market if one holds the copyright.

Mr. Yarros charges me with describing Mr. Bilgram’s case unfairly and inaccurately. To substantiate this charge he resorts to unfairness and inaccuracy himself. Though I differ from Mr. Bilgram, he says, I am still bound to recognize the fact that most students do share his opinion that the denial of property in ideas would destroy (or, at all events, cripple) literature. Mr. Bilgram’s opinion is substantiated by facts, and by numerous facts; and upon these facts most students base their opinions. The unfairness and inaccuracy here lie in the unwarrantable interpolation by Mr. Yarros of the parenthetical clause, or, at all events, cripple, which was not contained in the statement made by Mr. Bilgram and disputed by me, followed by the statement that Mr. Bilgram’s opinion (which is not the opinion that Mr. Bilgram expressed) is substantiated by facts and by most students. It was just because Mr. Bilgram declared that non-recognition of property in ideas would leave us without a literature that I pronounced this opinion contrary to the opinion of most students. Does Mr. Yarros dispute me here? Let him reflect for a moment that glorious literatures existed and flourished thousands of years before copyright was dreamed of, and that Shakspere himself wrote his works more than a century prior to the enactment of the first copyright law, before asserting that any student worthy of the name will face these facts with the absurd claim that copyright is essential to the existence of literature. It is true that many students, possibly most students, think that no-property in ideas would cripple literature. If Mr. Bilgram had said simply this, my answer would have taken a different shape. It is of no importance to discuss the point here, since Mr. Yarros, as I understand him, is not convinced that literature would be either destroyed or crippled by the denial of property in ideas; I refer to the matter only to refute the charge of unfairness and inaccuracy and place it where it belongs. And here I may add that it also partakes of unfairness to speak of my gloomy forecast of the results of equal liberty. I have forecast only the results of what I deny to be equal liberty.

I have left till the last the most important part of Mr. Yarros’s article. The first thing to be noted concerning it is that my last rejoinder, which he quotes but cannot admire, has extracted from him nevertheless an enormous admission, which, even as he states it, abandons to his foes a good two-thirds, I should say, of the ground disputed in the battle over property in ideas, and which a little further illumination will turn into complete victory for the opponents of such property. It is now allowed by Mr. Yarros that there must be no property in those inventions which are placed in men’s sight and which men need only to look at, every time they pass them, in order to understand them. I do not require men, he says, to shut their eyes or to stay at home. That he does not require it now is evident, because he says so; but it is equally evident that this is precisely what he did require two months ago, as any one may see by reading the following passages from his last article, in Liberty of February 21, which I italicize for myself:

Some things, indeed, it is not necessary to study; to see them merely is enough. But all Mr. Tucker has the right to demand is that these things shall not be brought to his own private house and placed before his eyes. The stores and the streets are not his; and he has no right to say that they shall not be offered there for inspection and sale. If he chooses to enter the stores, or walk in the public street and look at the display of goods in the windows, he does so at the risk of depriving himself of the liberty of originating certain things. Not being compelled by the inventors and authors to enter stores, he cannot complain of the loss of liberty entailed by these visits.

The full significance of this unquestionable revolution in Mr. Yarros’s view will be understood when we remember that all but a very small proportion of inventions are so placed that men see more or less of them in their daily walks and business,—men with that mechanical genius and quick perception which enable them to comprehend machinery almost at a glance,—and that all these inventions thus placed are no longer to be held as property at all, despite the fact that Mr. Yarros, in all his previous articles except the first one, has held in principle to permanent property in all ideas without exception, and in practice to permanent property in a certain class of ideas and to limited property in all other ideas. Heretofore the cry has been: In principle perpetual monopoly in ideas, so modified in practice that the monopoly shall be temporary in all cases where it is impossible to prove the originality. (See Mr. Yarros’s articles in Liberty of January 24 and February 7.) But now neither perpetual nor temporary monopoly is to be allowed to any ideas except in the case of books and the few inventions which are either not to be seen or are too complex to be understood without special study. In a previous reply I had occasion to point out that the champions of property in ideas had practically destroyed their position by making independence of invention the test of property. Now they have abandoned two-thirds of it in theory also.

But what about the remaining third,—books and the few hidden and complex inventions? It is readily to be seen that the distinctions by which it is attempted to separate these from the others are vain and futile.

In the first place we find that the man who uses an invention that he has seen is to be asked whether he saw it as he happened to pass it or whether he went out of his way to see it. In the former case it is his right to use it, in the latter case it is not his right. Was ever anything more childish? By this distinction, if I, on my way to my office in the morning, pass a street fakir selling the little coin receptacles now to be had at every corner, and if I by a casual glance am shrewd enough to see how they work, I can make and sell these banks without the consent of the inventor; but if, instead of passing the fakir directly on my way, I am attracted by a small crowd in a side [6] street, and, going out of my way, find the fakir in the midst of it, I cannot make and sell these banks. Wonderful!

In the second place we find that the man who uses an invention that he has seen is to be asked whether he comprehended it at a glance or whether he stopped to study it. In the former case it is his right to use it, in the latter case it is not his right. By this distinction I, who must study a steam-engine for weeks before I can understand it, am to be forced to respect somebody’s right of property in the idea; but the skilled mechanic, who perceives the modus operandi almost instantaneously, can immediately build as many steam-engines as he likes. Admirable!

In the third place we find that the man who publishes a book, or a part of a book, that has been previously published is to be asked whether he went out of his way to read this book or selection, or whether he simply refused to stop up his ears when it chanced to be read or repeated in his presence. In the former case he is to be punished because he deliberately took away his own liberty to write and publish such a book; in the latter case he is to be allowed to proceed because he was deprived of this liberty, not by his own volition, but by the act of another. By this distinction, if I publish Longfellow’s Psalm of Lifem which I perhaps have never read but which in some mysterious way I know by heart, I am an honest man; but if I read Evangeline and then publish it, I am a thief. Profound!

Equally fine-spun is the distinction which allows a man to use his eyes in the street without the imposition of a penalty, but which refuses the liberty to look at the books that lie open before his eyes on the table of the friend whom he is visiting without losing the liberty to write and publish books like them. As I pointed out in my answer to Mr. Zametkin in No. 178, the man who expects his fellow-citizens to protect the privacy of his writings must take reasonable precautions in the direction of such protection himself; and if, instead of such precautions, he is so reckless as to spread them in printed form on every hand, he must expect them to be read and must assume the consequences of such reading. If a man scatters money in the street, he does not thereby formally relinquish title to it any more than if he were to lay it on his table, but those who pick it up are thereafter considered its rightful owners, though nobody obliged them to take it from the gutter. Similarly a man who reproduces his writings by thousands and spreads them everywhere voluntarily abandons his right of privacy, and those who read them, even though not obliged to do so, no more put themselves by that act under any obligations in regard to the author than those who pick up scattered money put themselves under obligation to the scatterer. Moreover, if the simple consideration that men are not obliged to read books settles the question of copyright, then the other consideration that men are not obliged to go into the streets (or to stay within the limits of civilization, for that matter) settles similarly the question of patent right, and there was no reason for Mr. Yarros to retreat so hastily from his former position on the latter question. The truth is that neither consideration has properly the smallest weight in either case. There are certain every-day liberties which all men possess,—among them, walking the streets and reading books,—and they are not to be deprived of them in order to give a few men a monopoly of ideas which they have chosen to make public, whether in the form of inventions or in the form of books.

But not only are those distinctions childish and ridiculous; they are also unjust. For, while professedly drawn in the interest of intellectual laborers, they leave by far the larger number of them without protection, affording it only to authors and a very few inventors. And further they are impracticable, because they involve innumerable questions of petty detail which no jury could intelligently decide in accordance with any principle. Yet the same man who originates these distinctions and makes property in ideas begin at an uncertain degree of complexity, or at an uncertain degree of concealment, or with the reading of books, condemns Tak Kak and myself for empiricism! Rather it is he who is the empiric; for, by his departure from principle, he has been obliged to abandon two-thirds of his ground in order to retain a third, and of this third he can make no use whatever.

When I last left Mr. Yarros, he was running up a blind alley. What has since happened to him? He has discovered a knot-hole in the fence that closes the alley at the end. It seemed large for a knot-hole, and in his despair he tried to squeeze through it. His legs went through all right, but his body stuck fast. And now there he is, with his head on one side and his heels on the other, vainly wriggling and twisting; in which helpless and painful predicament, I, with my usual cruelty, leave him.