Fragments on the Freedom of the Press, Paris (1776)

Source: Cambridge University Library : Condorcet, 'Fragments sur la liberté de la presse' (1776), in Oeuvres (Firmin Didot 1847) tome II, p. 253

Fragments on the Freedom of the Press, Paris (1776), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

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Chapter 1 Page 55



On privileges for literary property

      We believed to have to finish this work with some
reflections on literary property. Does a man have the
right to prevent another man from writing the same
things as he himself wrote first? Such is the question
to solve. Indeed, one feels that there cannot be any
link between the property of a work and that of a field,
which can be cultivated by one man only; of a piece of
furniture which can be used by one man only, and,
consequently, whose exclusive property is founded on
the nature of the object. Thus this is not a pro-

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perty derived form the natural order, and defended by
the social force; it is a property founded by society
itself. It is not a true right, it is a privilege,
like the exclusive enjoyment of all that can be removed
from the sole owner without violence.
      Any privilege is thus an embarrassment imposed on
freedom, a restriction put on the rights of the other
citizens; in this sense it is harmful not only for the
rights of the others who want to copy, but to the rights
of all those who want to have copies, and for whom that
what increases the price is an injustice. Does the public
interest require that men make this sacrifice? Such is
the question that it needs to be examined; in other words,
are the privileges necessary, useful or harmful for the
progress of enlightenment?
      When the privileges of the book trade had not even
existed, Bacon would not have taught any less the road of
the truth in sciences; Kepler, Galileo, Huyghens, Descartes,
would not have made any fewer of their discoveries; Newton
would not have found any less the system of the world; Mr.
D' Alembert would not have solved any less the problem of
the precession of the equinoxes.
      The discoveries of the blood circulation, of irritability;
the successful research of Stahl, Bergman, Scheele, Priestley,
are not the fruits of the privileges of the book trade. In
other genres, the works that have contributed most to the
progress of enlightenment, the Encyclopedia, the works of

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Montesquieu, of Voltaire, of Rousseau, have not
enjoyed the benefits of privilege.
      A man of genius does not write books for the
riches; but if he is not rich and his books do not
pay off, he will be obliged to find an occupation
to survive, and the public will be the worse off for it.
      But the privilege is not necessary for this objective.
A subscription can replace this, and above that, all
advantages. Besides, the original edition made under the
eyes of the author will always be preferred, not only at
an equal price, but with a price difference sufficient for
the author. It will have, together with the advantage of
accuracy, that of superiority. Counterfeiters are only so
widespread because of the exorbitant price of original
editions, a price which in itself is the result of privileges.
      A book whose circulation will be free and which will
not be sold even a third above its [true] price, will almost
never be counterfeited. Liberty in this sphere, as in every
other, has the effect of bringing everything back to its
natural price, and everyone to his natural right.
      Another observation which also needs to be made, is that
privileges are necessarily issued for frivolous objectives only,
unless one does not press them to the extent that they become
ridiculous, and where no one dares to defend them.
      In fact, let us assume a useful book: it is because of
the truths one can find in it that it is useful. Well then, the
privilege ascribed to the author does not extend to impeding
someone else from exposing the same truths, from

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bringing its order into perfection, or the proofs, from broadening
the developments, the results. The author of this useful book will
thus not really have a privilege.
      It is thus only for the expressions, for the sentences, that
privileges exist. It is not for the issues, the ideas: it is for
the words, for the name of the author. Hence their objective is
not to preserve for an inventor the price of the useful discoveries
he has made, but to put it up for sale at a higher price with the
agreeable appearances which he has imagined.
      I can, as often as it pleases me, arrange to have printed a
solution of the problem of the precession of the equinoxes,
expose a general principle of mechanics, etc. etc. The author of
these useful and great discoveries has no say over me: the glory
remains with him. But if I get it into my head to print an
epithalamium, without the permission of the author, then I will
have committed an offence.
      Finally, the privileges in this sphere have, as in every other,
the disadvantages of decreasing the activity, of concentrating it in
a small number of hands, of charging it with a considerable tax, of
rendering the manufactures from this country inferior to foreign
      Hence they are neither necessary, nor even useful, and we have
seen that they are unjust.


These are our ideas on a part of legislation which is more important
than one usually thinks.

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The well-being of men depends partly on their
enlightenment, and the progress of enlightenment
depends partly on the legislation on printing.
Although this legislation did not have any influence
on the discovery of useful truths, it does have an
extraordinary influence on the way in which these
truths are circulated. It is one of the inevitable
causes of the difference which exists between the
opinions of enlightened men, those of the public and
the opinions of people who occupy [academic or political]
posts. All the bold opinions have been said and
repeated a long time ago; one cannot quote a single one
which hadn't already been advanced by the authors of
the seventeenth century, and renewed nowadays:
the majority of useful truths are unappreciated.
      The history of rigorous laws against books, would
in itself suffice to disgust people.
      The first man persecuted for a work regarded as
irreligious, was Aristotle. It is Tiberius who first
persecuted a historian and had his works burned. It was
not a mark which he wanted to imprint, it was the work
itself he wanted to destroy. One could genuinely achieve
this before the invention of printing: whereas at present
this burning is just a ceremony which has been preserved
through custom, though it has also been customary to mock
it during the last two centuries.
      It was Francis I who established censorship in France,
at a time when his mistresses had not hardened him yet in
the true religion. Annoyed by the cries from the Sorbonne
against several men of letters whom he liked and who were
being accused of Lutheranism,

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he ordered the doctors not to print anything without
permission, quoting as reason the disorder which their
fanatic books could cause in the State. It is thus
against the theologians that censorship was established.
      One would see: inquisitorial-oriented countries
plunged into ignorance of all the sciences, having only
crude skills, inept in the art of war and navigation, like-
wise in policy and trade; one would see that a little while
before the invention of printing, even in Italy, to which
the rest of Europe owes its enlightenment, the sciences could
hardly find a refuge in Florence, in Venice, in Milan; one
would see Galileo forced to ask for forgiveness for having
made discoveries, or for having shown great truths; whole
volumes containing the catalogue of books which the pope
prohibited from being read; and all the good books,
especially those in which human rights and those of the
sovereigns are established, were put on this list; one would
see Descartes leaving his fatherland to escape from
persecution by priests; obliged once again to avoid the
persecution of the protestant ministers, and to go and seek
refuge in the palace of Christina; Bayle, compelled to leave
his country, because he did not believe in the pope, and
coerced into misery in Holland for having praised the popes;
Fontenelle threatened of persecution because he dared to
answer a Jesuit, and not to admit to him that God, in order
to better mislead men, granted the devil the gift of being
a prophet; Gianone finishing his life in exile devoted to
defend the rights of his

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country; Rousseau placing an order in Paris and Geneva for
a book to be printed in Holland; Montesquieu feeling obliged
to have the "Spirit of the Laws" printed outside of his country;
Voltaire hardly enjoying any security in his final years, when he
was at the apogee of his glory, and only with great difficulty
finding a shelter in the outskirts of France; the marquis of
Mirabeau being deprived of his freedom for having spoken with
too little respect about the indirect taxation [gabelle], about
the tax on those who have drunk too much; a citizen exiled
for having dared to express a heretic opinion on the freedom of
the cattle trade; the author of the "Philosophy of Nature"
enduring a criminal trial for having preached about God
and morality in a style unknown in the attics of the Jansenists
[convulsionnaires]; the author of the "Philosophical History of
Trade" sentenced without even making sure that he was actually
guilty. In a word, if one excludes some poets who were nothing
else but poets, one would not be able to find in the countries
where there is no freedom of press a single famous man who hadn't
undergone some form of persecution.

Translation by: Freya Baetens (of pp.55-61)


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