Leonard Read's Open-Source Vision
by Jeffrey A. Tucker
Leonard E. Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, is often heralded for his role in kick-starting the libertarian movement after World War II. The sons of FEE went on to do great good for the world, and FEE is often called the father of all libertarian think tanks — institutions that work outside official academia to advance radical ideas.
He did more than merely sponsor lectures and publish. As a matter of fact, others were doing the same. So far as I know, no one has yet noticed that he used a secret weapon in his struggle, something that made him truly different and unusually effective. He eschewed the use of exclusive copyright.
Pick up any book or publication from FEE before the 1990s. You will see a remarkable and visionary sentence on the copyright page: "Permission to reprint granted without special request." This one sentence is what made it happen. Any newspaper could print a column. Any publisher could include an essay. Indeed, he invited any publisher to take any FEE book and publish it and sell it, owing no royalties and asking no permissions.
The publisher was not even asked to acknowledge its source! So in this sense, he was even more radical than Creative Commons attribution license. It was copyrighted solely so that someone else couldn't copyright it, and then maximum permissions were granted. In effect, he was putting all of the scholarship of FEE in the public domain as soon as it was published.
This saved on the grueling bureaucratic struggle involved with granting permissions, and keeping up with the permissions they granted. Asking no fees or royalties meant saving on accounting bureaucracy as well.
Read was no anarchist but rather a believer in "limited government," but regardless, this much is true: he hated the state beyond its most limited form. He saw it as the great enemy of freedom, creativity, and social progress. In fact, he was even more radical: he loathed all restrictions on information. He must have seen that restricting the flow of information through conventional copyright relies upon state interference to make a non-scarce thing — information — artificially scarce. This went against his entire temperament.
As he wrote: "Freedom works its wonders simply because the generative capacity of countless millions has no external force standing against its release!"
But there is a more important point that Read understood. He understood that the critical problem faced by what he called the "freedom philosophy" was not piracy. From his point of view, the ideas of liberty were not "stolen" nearly enough. The problem that he sought to overcome was not too much copying, it was not enough copying. He saw that his number-one goal had to be busting up the obscurity of these ideas and getting them out to the public. Conventional copyright was not a help in this respect; it was a hindrance.
Never forget that Read had a background in business. He was head of the Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles before founding FEE. He must have seen countless businesses start and fail, not because they didn't have a good product, but because people didn't know about the product enough to go and buy it. The critical problem that every innovator faces, after coming up with the innovation, is getting the word out.
Think of a new hamburger stand in Los Angeles. It doesn't matter how great the burgers are; if people don't know about it, it will not succeed. Imagine if some huge fan wanted to print up t-shirts about the hamburgers. Why in the world would the owner of the joint want to use the government to extract money from the t-shirt printer? That would be nuts.
And let's say that another burger company in town started up that used the same recipe. What then? The answer is to regard the imitation as flattery, and compete in the most aggressive possible way. It keeps you on your toes, keep you innovating, and the excitement of the competition itself can attract imitation. And who is going to benefit the most from this struggle, the original institution or its copy? The answer is shown to us every day. Originators who keep innovating benefit.
In the same way, Read saw himself in the idea business. Why, then, would he turn to the state to restrict the flow of ideas? That would cut into everything he ever wanted to do. Indeed, rather than restricting access to FEE texts, he begged the world to take them and print them and distribute them. He wanted this more than anything else.
You will note that he was very prolific, but why? Because he had a lifetime burning passion to get the word out in every possible way. He stated the freedom philosophy again and again in every way he could imagine and encouraged others to do the same. He was an evangelist spreading the news. He wanted to be pirated so that he could see that he was making a difference.
Thank goodness for his vision. But please note what it means. The modern freedom movement depended heavily on open-source materials. It had an effect on the world because it eschewed restriction, state-means of imposing artificial scarcities, and sought above all else to get the word out. The modern libertarian movement was born in Creative Commons and grew through that means.
Indeed it was true: FEE material was everywhere! It was in newspapers, magazines, monographs, books, and printed by all existing technologies. People in those days report that you couldn't help bumping into it. I'm telling you that Read knew what he was doing. He went against the pack. Everyone else was availing themselves of copyright. He said no. And he stuck to it.
Did this harm FEE? Quite the contrary! It was the best thing that ever happened to the institution and to the ideas it represented. Just as Read said, freedom worked. The implications are profound.
What about the Mises Institute? Lew Rockwell, who had long known and admired Leonard Read, adopted this model in the early days of the Institute, particularly for our newsletters. The default permissions were the same as Read's own! We never had the money to print too much in the way of books. And reprinting in those days involved terrible copyright struggles. The issue went off the radar screen. But as Creative Commons appeared, Mises.org adopted it as its own, and it has been a wild success. We are nowadays taking the radical step of putting our books into this status as well.
This is all about practicing what you preach but there is more to it than that: it is about developing an effective tactic for spreading the truth. It's a glorious thing that Read did, if only by instinct. Would that we all had his instinct for how to rise from obscurity into prominence.
February 14, 2009