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Goodness Ugwumba Opara

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What do you think of a world without patents?

The benefits of open innovation are undoubtedly clear, especially for the human race at large. We have seen the potent power of a lot of people working on an idea to speed up innovation in various fields. Yet one wonders how a company can survive without protecting its intellectual property.

Given that we have all benefited and continue to benefit from inventions of other humans across the world, and that humanity will as a whole will grow faster if people were free to take any idea from anywhere and make it better, build upon it; what do you think the future holds for patents?

Do we all owe it to the world to share our ideas freely, just as we have benefited immeasurably from ideas of people we'll never meet?


Closing Statement from Goodness Ugwumba Opara

I’d like to thank all of you for taking out time to make your very stimulating views heard. In addition, I’d say the following:
a. For those that believe innovators won't find funding for their research (if patents became a thing of the past), consider the recent trends in crowd funding. I believe that people will fund ideas they believe in, perhaps much better than the current system that relies on investors. I think this is possible for even the biggest and most expensive research projects.
b. Mr McGuinness, yes the world can be cruel, but we have repeatedly seen people’s willingness to extend a helping hand. Thanks so much for your input.
c. To Joel Harrison: perhaps the most important reason why you could carry out your research in the first place is that you were able to drink from the common cup of the knowledge of all humanity.
d. Thanks Juan Donado, but permit me to politely suggest that its not that simple. Yes it is probable that research funds from investors would cease, but I daresay other sources (crowd funding for example) will begin to take center stage; and on the second point, I think your idea is not yours alone. You are where you are today because you have benefited (perhaps more than you realize) from ideas from other people, that were improved by other people still. Nor does it mean that innovators will no longer benefit from their ideas, work, etc. I think it’s fair to say that patents have run their course; it’s time for something new and better, something better suited to the needs of a new era. The details have to be worked out though.
e. That’s a stimulating idea Bart HSI. Thanks for sharing.
f. Thanks Mr Tropp, yet I think copycats will remain copycats, and the innovators will get even greater honour and recognition for their work, and perhaps even more money, it all depends on how it’s organized. Consider that we will never forget the Wright brothers. Thanks for your time.
Lonita Minhea, Jennell Lewis, Krisztián Pintér, everyone, thank u

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    Aug 15 2013: for example in the 1600's, people invented a lot of things, and there were no patents. it is a myth that patents are necessary for innovation. it is similar to saying that grains are necessary for nutrition. granted, grains were and are a staple food many places all around the globe, but their elimination would not suddenly end mankind, it would just lead to different eating habits. the world without patents would be most certainly different, but not unworkable, nor disastrous.

    we would see much less huge companies pushing new products. we would possibly see more small firms, and distributed means of research. there could be more research done by funds, universities or the crowd. or possibly joint ventures combining the might of leading companies within an industry.

    we would also see less money earned directly from innovation, but rather the installation of new technologies. everyone understands that being the first is important, so installers of technology would innovate as an extra advantage on the market.

    another difference would be in favor of the developing world. without patents, any small farmers and manufacturers anywhere could immediately benefit from new technologies. also they would benefit from new medicines.

    the more one thinks about it, the more appealing this idea gets. monsanto loses, african farmers win. big pharma loses, average indian wins. corporations lose, universities win. it is hard for me to shed a tear, honestly.
    • Aug 15 2013: For a start, compare the modern rate of invention to the 1600's. There is no real comparison to be made, as the difference is in orders of magnitude. There are many reasons, but one of them which fits into this argument is the amount of people trained and working in science and engineering.
      In the 1600's (and significantly later than that), the only way a scientist or engineer could fund any real project is through the patronage of a noblemen. If you didn't have a noblemen, you didn't have funding, it was as simple as that.
      Today, we don't have noblemen keeping court scientists alongside the jesters, we have corporate funding.

      Without patents, you don't have corporate funding anymore unless a project promises to be hugely profitable simply on the merit of getting it first. Problem is, given how much faster and cheaper it is for the competition to reverse-engineer your products than it took you to develop them, that head start needs to go a long way. So long in fact, that for the vast majority of projects, it won't be anywhere near enough to churn a decent profit.
      Just like that, no more corporate funding. No more money in research and development.

      You could try to raise research grants through charity I suppose, but good luck scoring any real sum that way (by corporate standards anyway).
      Government funding comes with its own problems. You'll be hamstrung by politics, and chances are, governments will be even less keen to share than corporations.

      The patent system has its drawbacks, but its not there for the corporation's sake. Its there to promote innovation, and it does so quite well.
      I don't care how idealistic you are, you've still got to pay the bills at the end of the month. If there's no money in it, people will move on to doing different things, and scientists and engineers are no exception.
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        Aug 15 2013: for start, compare the gdp per capita in 1600 and today.

        the rest of your post is claims. i already dismissed these as myths.
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          Aug 16 2013: I'm a science teacher, virtually every significant discovery I can think of in the pre- capitalist era was financed either by the King or the church. In fact I can't even think of one that wasn't. The scientist is a slave to someones desire for glory. It used to be King's and churches, then it was patriotic endevour, now its the glory of wealth. But you're right eliminating patents won't make much difference, we would just go back to the era of secret knowledge.
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          Aug 16 2013: As being a disciple of Austrian Economics yourself, I expected you to be less harsh on claims and myth in general by now, just by being used to it...

          Yet seeing you being harsh on the claims and myths of others may just be explained by the ancient drive of territorial affected behavior ... :o)

          And no, I am not just fooling around here, I simply mean it...;o)
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    Aug 15 2013: I think Kirby Ferguson's last episode of his 'Everything is a Remix' series holds a wise solution to your question:

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      Aug 16 2013: Absolutely wonderful video and right to the point. I could not agree more. It is a shame what we have done to this country aside from stealing it from it's rightful owners and then killing most of them. We had a blueprint for success called the constitution and bill of rights which have both been modified out of existence. We presently live under a dictatorship and our masters are unbelievably cruel, crazy and stupid. The Karma they are generating will destroy the whole world in the end and the end is not far away. If we do not learn to share we will parish.
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        Aug 16 2013: Yes, Kirby Ferguson did such a beautiful re-condensation of the original essence of patents and copyrights, that their elegant purity expose all of todays abject motives which polluted them.

        But hey, at todays times, where it is expected to bail out private investors by taxpayers, this old view of the 'common good' has become old fashioned anyway... ;o)

        The new credo has become to privatize the profits and to socialize the losses and not to question the influence and consequences of just a few over all the other people.

        You are right, your nation once truly hold the 'blueprint for success' at a time, where the remembrance of your founders about the burden of an aristocratic ruling class still was vivid in their minds. Practically, they just bottled one genie to free another...

        I am very concerned about the metamorphosis your country went through since and towards the current situation you describe, which appear to have manifested itself into neo-medieval times which spread around the globe.

        But also here Kirby Ferguson conclusion on patents and copyrights holds the key for the cure:

        'Social Evolution is not up to governments, corporations or lawyers ... its up, to us!'
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    Aug 15 2013: This has already been said, but I'll just add my support to these ideas:

    First, without patent protection, there's no question but that there would be much less high-tech innovation, because most of these require millions of dollars of investment, research teams, and years of work. In the case of medicines, they require lengthy and expensive tests, first on animals, then on people. No one is going to throw away millions so that some fly-by-night firm in a low-wage country can crank out cheap copies.

    There could initially be a kind of cost savings to buyers from dropping patent laws, as countries that are already well-known for ignoring patent, trademark and copyright laws and engaging in large-scale piracy really go into high gear.

    It seems to me that the main problem with the patent system lies in extensions. In many countries patents may be extended many times, although the original patent term is usually for only 20 years. I would support cutting out extensions altogether. Get your profits from your patent in the first 20 years, then it's public property. NO to patent extensions!
  • Aug 15 2013: Great question! To answer simply I would say that a world without patents would be a much more progressive and productive place. You asked an interesting question about , "how a company can survive without protecting its intellectual property," and the answer is competition.

    The benefits of sharing human invention and expanding on the knowledge and work of others greatly out ways any negative consequences that may come from the abolishment of patent laws. The main argument for patents is that without them their wouldn't be incentive for innovation because companies or individuals would spend loads of money on research and not ever realize a profit from their investment. But that's not the case. If there were no patents laws a company would still benefit by being innovative and bringing their product to the market first. When an outside competitor creates the same product they will have to do something to make their product different from the original which usually means making the same product for a cheaper price, or making the same product with some new added benefit that the original product lacks, all of which benefits the consumer.

    In a market place without patents, innovators cannot protect their ideas but they can still guarantee a profit by being the first to the market, and they can continue to receive a profit by continually being competitive with their product and ahead of any competition. Also by being the first to the market with a new product one would benefit from name association. Being the originator of a product means that consumer associate that certain product or drug with your company and every other competitor would be viewed as a knock off.

    But over all without patents the world as a whole would benefit because like you said anyone from anywhere can take an idea and make it better, and if they don't make it better they will at least make it cheaper... all of which benefits the consumer aka you, me, and everyone else! :)
    • Aug 15 2013: Except that it doesn't quite work like that.

      Say a company develops some manner of new innovation, and patents it. They manage to earn, say three times as much as it took to develop. Now without the patent, where their competition starts copying their innovation the moment they can get a copy to reverse engineer, the original company, on virtue of being first alone, barely manages to return its investment.
      If the profit margin isn't high enough, it simply won't get done. Its not worthwhile, investors will look towards other things.
      Add to that rate of failure for groundbreaking work; for every one that succeeds, you can easily get two or three expensive flops.

      Without patents, corporate profits for any groundbreaking work plunge dramatically. No profit, no funding, as simple as that.
      No corporate backing, you loose out on all the scientists and engineers who work on such projects--as idealistic as some may be, they've got bills to pay just like anyone else. If there's no money in it, they'll find something else to do, and in the future, less quality people will be attracted to such professions.

      The only alternative system I can see working is government backed research, but it'll be a lot less efficient than the existing system, and bogged down by politics.
      It also won't accomplish the masses enjoying the new developments, because governments will hoard all the new discoveries for themselves.
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      Aug 15 2013: Jennell Lewis, You are sooooooooooooooooo right. Right as rain...
  • Aug 15 2013: There is nothing wrong with patents in theory. They have simply been overused in the last 10 to 15 years. The problem is that the patent board needs to justify its existence, and so it grants patents to things that shouldn't really qualify. It needs to be reined in, but that doesn't mean we should throw out the idea of patents altogether.
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    Aug 16 2013: I hope that the Big Pharma does not have your home address, they may pay you a visit!
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    Aug 16 2013: as a routine for all patent topics, i leave here a talk by stephan kinsella patent lawyer:

  • Aug 16 2013: Wow, we have a lot more blind idealism here than I thought.

    Without patents, there's no money in any industry that can't keep secrets, because the competition will simply reverse engineer all you inventions and start churning out copies.
    As reverse engineering is requires a smaller team, less facilities and less time, the financial advantage goes to the copy cats, not the original inventor. Sure, the original company will still have a few months head start, but it also starts behind in that they've had to foot the bill for the initial cost of development, which is typically quite high.

    Without patents, it just makes more financial sense to be a copy cat rather than to develop your own stuff.
    Just like that, no more corporate funding for original research. You'll have to rely on government grants and charity alone. Government grants are usually minor unless the tech comes with an obvious military benefit, and charity pays peanuts.

    In short, you'll only be able to maintain the current rate of innovation in industries where secrecy is easy, and a monopoly can be enforced for a certain period of time even without a patent.
    Given how good people have gotten in reverse engineering nowadays, there aren't many industries where such secrecy is possible anymore...
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      Aug 16 2013: you just push the same mantra in a loop
      • Aug 16 2013: Alright then, let me stop talking and start listening. Explain to me how you plan on funding innovation without a patent system.
        I want a comprehensive list, not just ideals thrown around. I want a solution that will guarantee at least as much capital backing R&D as the current system.

        Where do you propose the money will come from?
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          Aug 16 2013: i did in my previous post. look for the one with my name on it, and kinda lengthy. comprehensive list of the sources of innovation is 100000 pages long, and forgive me not assembling it for you.

          jeez, are you the kind of guy that want a complete list of individual animals died due to a polluting factory in order to do something?
      • Aug 16 2013: You've taken me a little more literally than I intended.
        Let me rephrase.

        The solutions you've suggested bellow will move capital towards research, true. They will however, move orders of magnitude less capital than the existing system.

        If you have a better idea, I'm open to suggestions--don't take this personally, but I found the ideas in the earlier post lacking in practicality. Moving to your proposed new methods will see our research budgets horribly slashed.
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    Aug 16 2013: World without Patent is an utopian dream.

    Unless there is better incentive available to the innovators.
  • Aug 16 2013: This is interesting:
    1. I agree too many patents
    2. A patent needs to be defended in court
    3. The key IP of a company is rarely patent and kept as a trade secret and known by only a few people.
  • Aug 16 2013: Let me suggest an intermediary system which probably will benefit the world population as a whole, but still give some protection to inventors in new medicines or complex technological advances. I also have a secondary reason for the suggested modification, i. e. the time period for a new and improved invention has become shorter, so the 10 to 20 year patent periods are really too long. This is easily seen in the case of smartphone patent cases that it becomes a circus of suing and counter-suing involving the more or less the same kind of gadgets over and over again.
    My suggestion:
    The inventors should be rewarded with the ongoing patent protection period(s) to encourage innovation and compensation of the investment on research. But the new regulation should encourage new innovation by inventors who have made a SUBSTANTIALLY NEW COMPONENTS OR NEW APPROACH to the existing patented "product". If the bureau of patent examines a new application, submitted at any time after the original patent, judged it as a substantial improvement upon the original one, it can approve the new one at anytime. But the actual sale of the new product should be delayed until the original patented product is on the market for the half of the patented period of the original permit. After that the two patented product can be on the market concurrently protected by their respective protection periods. Of course, any 3rd generation of improved products and approved, have to wait until the the half of the market protection of the second generation product period is over.
    This method would still encourage new innovations and, at the same time, save lot of of the expenses in the patent litigation among the different inventors.
  • Aug 16 2013: A World without patents would be a World with few, or even no innovation at all. If scientists, corporations, governments etc. were not encouraged by the usually huge profit opportunities from R&I then probably, they would not spend so much effort trying to come up with something new. That's obvious. But also I think it'd bring a wrong message to society as a whole: invent something and then see how others profit from YOUR idea. We're imperfect and greedy humans after all.
  • Aug 16 2013: It seems the comments "for" the idea of eliminating patents are from people who don't own any patents and clearly haven't invested time and money in the research and development of one. Look, this is very simple. You have spent a great deal of time and effort to be as successful as you can be. If I stole your identity and wrecked everything you have created for yourself, how would you feel? If I redistributed all your money and took out loans, in your name, to help the poor and less fortunate, would that make it okay? If you had a method to prevent me from doing that, wouldn't you?
  • Aug 15 2013: No we don't owe it to the world to share our ideas freely. The world is pretty damn cruel. No one gives you the time of day unless you are born into it. If you're from the wrong side of the tracks, you're screwed unless you work very hard and keep trying to break through to acceptance in circles that can empower you. If we were a different society--one with an educational model that treated "social development" as an imperative as critical as knowledge development where "cooperation" skills were as important as competition skills then I'd say society were likely to be way more "facilitating" and accommodating of individual insight. But as it is, people more often feel threatened and behave territorially than take risks on a wild card. It's crueler yet to just fleece someone who has paid their dues to bring an original idea to product.
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    Aug 15 2013: You will have your answer shortly, the world cannot continue on this path much longer. Either we will learn to share or we will parish and you can take that to the bank!
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    Aug 15 2013: There is an upside and a downside to a world without patents. The upside is that inventions would be improved by the whole world not just the person or company that first made them. However, the downside is less new inventions because the best way to make a profit as an individual or company may be improving another person's invention slightly and not creating something new. This will probably lead to a very hectic economy as companies take the same good idea and try to outdo their competitors by making tiny modifications. It may speed up innovation (or at least improvement of existing products) but the cost is destabilizing companies and the economy.
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    Aug 15 2013: Innovation can occur independently, in the same time in various places in the world. The intellectual effort and creativity can not be judged and ranked and we should assume equal merits for those arriving to similar conclusions. Just by giving a patent and exclusive rights to the one who was 2 days faster can be frustrating for the other(s). In fact, it is possible to mainly reward the lawyer’s work and “punish” the inventor that lacked the patenting infrastructure.
    On the other hand, the way the knowledge paradigm is shifting towards free public access to information, should make us think to the future. Music industry and now film industry (also innovation and creativity sellers) are reinventing their ways of rewarding the artist/inventor and I think the scientific world and technology sector should do the same.
    Most probably, patents should remain in our dictionary but its meaning should be reconsidered.
  • Aug 15 2013: I believe a world without patents would be a hectic world. Everyone would be looking for some sort of compensation for their work even thought it may have already been produced.
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    Aug 15 2013: I think it's relevant, and I love this TED Talk:

    Copyright law's grip on film, music and software barely touches the fashion industry ... and fashion benefits in both innovation and sales, says Johanna Blakley. In her talk, she talks about what all creative industries can learn from fashion's free culture. (Filmed at TEDxUSC.)

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      Aug 16 2013: There are hundreds of law-suits within the fashion industry against product piracy, so I don't really see what separates this industry from all the others.

      Labeling and branding has become the holy grail especially in the fashion industry, as for instance, there is only one company allowed to put THREE stripes on their sportswear products. It became a battlefield of logos, symbols and 'identification markers', to separate the 'lifestyle' from the cloth, as all the basic shapes have already been invented before the time of copyright laws.

      This was the time when they began to sew their labels on the outside, because 'design' and 'materials' alone wasn't distinguishable enough. And, given the prices, distinction had to be signalized some how, if the product itself couldn't transport this message on its own.

      The repeating pattern within the fashion industry are celebrated artificially since to the extreme and supported by big PR campaigns to target and brand potential consumers. Combined with a promoted personality cult of so called 'fashion gurus', the 'scene' transcended itself to almost religious levels, which, of course, are carefully protected and lawfully secured.

      Yet after all, its nothing but overpriced cloth ... :o)
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    Aug 15 2013: everyone want to lead
  • Aug 15 2013: Patents are there to accelerate forward progress, and they do so quite well.
    Frankly, expecting science and engineering to advance for their own sake is naive at best. We wouldn't have half of our modern world if it wasn't for the very clear economic incentives to push for new inventions.

    I don't care how much of an idealist you are, you've got to pay the bills at the end of the month. Cancelling patents will very quickly turn science and engineering a lot harder to live off of, and actively discourage people from the fields.
    It hardly helps that scientific innovation often requires a great deal of financial investment--good luck gathering up investors without a way of returning a profit.

    The entire system is actively designed for the betterment of society. Its not there to limit, its there to motivate, and manages to do so fairly well.
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    Aug 15 2013: This survey of the literature from a reliable source should get you up to speed on what scholars have observed in studying how patents affect innovation and public welfare: http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~bhhall/papers/HallHarhoff12_NBER_w17773.pdf
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      Aug 15 2013: Scholars are paid by patent holders and are thus biased and some could care less about innovation or the public welfare.
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        Aug 15 2013: I disagree with this blanket statement that scholars do not care about innovation or public welfare.
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          Aug 15 2013: Do you agree that scholars are paid by patent holders and are thus biased? I will modify that statement to some do not care. I am sure you can find some good people even in the depths of hell, if there is a hell.
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        Aug 16 2013: Scholars are paid by universities that do have patents. But that does not suggest they will sacrifice their intellectual integrity to support patents or reject innovation and the public welfare. Scholars are rewarded professionally for innovative work and breakthroughs they may achieve (and to some degree regarded negatively for not having such achievements to their names), so to say they do not care about innovation is mightily strange. And many of the major sources of funding for scholarship requires a showing that their work is in the public interest..

        There will among the many in any discipline be a few bad apples. I would guess there are fewer among scholars than in most fields.
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          Aug 16 2013: I am not talking about just the Universities patents, a large part of the funding for Universities comes from Corporations who have a large investment in patents or Philanthropists who's source of wealth was obtained with the use of patents. The bottom line is and your link pointed this out clearly our whole financial system is heavily tied to property rights of which patents are a major player. That is why I am not trying to fix the system, the entire system is flawed and all the good intentions or not by scholars is irrelevant. It's like changing seats on the Titanic.
          Socrates said something that is apropos here: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”
          That is why I am not to concerned with the older scholars, most are set in their ways and fully invested in a system that is not working well for anybody. I focus my energy on the youth who are eager to learn how to tell the truth from the propaganda and that is all you really need to know, you will figure out the rest on your own.
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        Aug 16 2013: I agree that people need to learn to distinguish truth from marketing and politics.