TED Conversations

Pāvils Jurjāns

Director/owner, Knowledge Factory

TEDCRED 500+

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Could we do without patents and copyrights? Would that be fair? Would there be motivation to innovate?

That seems so odd: many people concentrate on certain subject, and then, basically at random, one of them is struck with solution. And then s/he monopolises this chance fact, to burden the society with extra cost to use the invention. Aren't good ideas somewhat like winning in a lottery?
Yes, indeed, for certain type of discoveries, there are a lot of investments to be made, and once the solution is reached (but certainly not guaranteed to be reached), the inventor wants to cover the costs of making the invention. And rightly so, the thinking also is a job that needs to be renumerated. But how to balance the fair reward the people developing solutions are eligible to, and the uneven burden of patent costs for the general public? Isn't most of the patent system just plainly abused by lawyers?
It would be great to see a world where knowledge and creative content is shared for the benefit of all. Utopian, perhaps. But maybe not so unreal as we might feel, being blinded by the present state.

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    Mar 3 2011: No
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    Mar 3 2011: Whether or not you need intellectual property protection depends on the society that you live in. In a society where the ability of you and people that you care about to live and thrive is not an issue, patents are useless. Ditto in a world where economic oligopoly is impossible, or where there is a strong social ethic of a commons culture.

    We don't have that. But the system that we do have does nothing to protect individual and small group innovators and creators, and much to protect corporate economic dominance. We can protect IP and support the commons by:

    - seriously limiting the length that patents and copyrights (especially copyrights) can run, and/or

    - releasing orphan copyrights, and/or

    - limiting patent and copyright protection for corporate persons.
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      Mar 3 2011: I like the idea of limiting the length that patents (not so much copyrights) can run Kevin. This provides the inovator time to profit from their ingenuity and then after a reasonable amount of time, the community can benefit from the release of the patent information.

      On the other hand, we need to clarify what can and can not be owned by an entity aside from the earth. Too often we see companies securing the patents and rights to plant seeds! which I believe anything in nature every human has a fundamental right to access.

      Great thoughts though.
  • Mar 3 2011: Hello! This is a topic I've grappled with for the last 10 years as I've thought aboud (and talked about) open source software.

    I think that Patents and Copyright (P & C) have a valuable and important role to play, in some domains and with some clear caveats. Both Patent and Copyright law (and subsequent case law) are crammed with flaws which have to be fixed at some point - but these flaws don't necesarily justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Both P & C depend on a "bargain" in which a form of ownership is granted by the state in the belief that by doing so the generation of intellectual property will be encouraged. We have to review this "bargain" over and over again to ensure that the rights we're granting continue to fulfil the goal of producing more innovation.

    In the case of Patents - I believe that there is clear evidence that innovation is - broadly - supported by patents. In domains where a significant investment is required to create the IP, but relatively low investment required to subsequently copy it, patents offer investors an important level of protection. There are other areas where the investment protection argument doesn't work. For business methods, and software (for example) I believe that patents act as a barrior to innovation and competition.

    Copyright also protects the creators of IP (It also protects open source softwate, by the way, as the OSS licenses rely on copyright law). I think the duration of (C) should be limited along similar lines to patent protection (ie < 20 years) though, rather than the excessively long duration the current law applies.

    Sure - there are alternative ways to create and share IP... and there's no reason at all why they can't coexist (Open Source Software, Patent Commons etc). Over time, the most effective mechanism for innovation will be determined by the market, surely?
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    Mar 3 2011: Innovation has always been there when an individual with some skills meets a problem that she needs to solve. Most of the time the inventor or innovator has not been thinking about patents or making money but towards improving the lot of the community facing the problem. (No patents on grist mills or water wheels). It has only been with modern times that patents and secrets ingredients are made to profit monetarily from the innovations.Many times the people who have the original solution are not the people who get the patents. This has become the domain of big business. In India today there is a project that honours the innovative skills of the average man and recognizes that they should be the ones to enjoy the fruits of their genius.
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    Feb 28 2011: ...sorry, not sure I understand the content of your conversation here, but I believe that relying solely on a capitalist way of looking at the bottom line, is part of, if not the problem itself.

    Enough is enough when you can now longer perceive how your overindulgence imposes unfair restraints on others. Our system needs to evolve.
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    Feb 20 2011: To my view, the main topics here are - whether there would be a mechanism how to finance research to acquire new knowledge. In academic circles, fundamental sciences, the discoveries (ie of new particles or behaviour of nano-scale materials etc) are usually openly declared to the general public. The funding of those institutions is both government (ie, tax payer) and private (ie, generous individuals). So, this mechanism generates certain amount of discoveries for the rest of us.
    In private sector, while the companies are doing everything to protect their designs (both legally, via patents, and physically, via sealed hardware and cryptic circuit designs), they still can not stop reverse-engineering and smart abuse of their patents. The most effective way how they win their customers is still the good old fruit-market sellers method - by praising their product loudly.
    Maybe in the world without patents companies would find smart ways how to win back the money invested in the research? After all, we will still have to buy stuff, someone will have to produce it, and those who produce it will be motivated to find the most effective ways how to do it, thus they will hire smart engineers. And, those companies will be very interested to sell their stuff effectively, to cash in on the fact that they are the first ones. It would still take some time for others to catch up, even with no patents to leap.
  • Feb 20 2011: Here is my idea, and this is a topic I am not extremely well versed on, so take it for what is it worth. I propose a compromise that maintains patents, but modifies the terms to prevent abuse, while adhering to capitalist thinking (why protect it unless for capitalist reasons).

    I propose a length of patent that is dictated by profits. Imagine a bell curve with the vertical axis being length of time, and the horizontal axis being profits.

    At the low end of the curve you will have a patent that does not produce much in the way of profits which probably fall into one of two categories (1) not a good idea so no one purchases thing utilizing the patent, or (2) those holding the patent are not capable of effectively utilizing the patent. The low end of the curve would also serve to ward off those who simple want to sit on a patent to prevent innovation or to in essence extort money for its use. Use it or loose it.

    In the middle of the curve you will have patents that produce meaningful profits. This would imply that the patent has value to the public, and therefore they are purchasing it. The presence of the diminishing length found further along the curve would also encourage patent holders to provide the result of the patent to the public at a lower cost, making the innovation easier utilized by the public.

    At the high and of the curve you would have patents that produce large profits. It stands to reason that if you make a lot of money off of the patent, then it is a meaningful and beneficial idea. The length of the patent may be shorter, but the profits are better. This would ensure that truly innovative ideas make it into the public domain for public consumption and benefit while they are still meaningful.

    Two counter-arguments I could see are (1) too much government interference and (2) difficult to track. My abbreviated responses: (1) It is a PUBLIC patent and not required, private protections are possible (e.g. Coca-Cola and KFC); (2) the IRS.
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      Feb 20 2011: Your idea makes total sense, but it essentially just replaces one tightly controlled system with another tightly controlled system. Thus, it is both hackable and prone to inefficiency, just as the existing one is. For example, if everyone knows that patent will be short-lived, if no-one is buying it, public would rationalise that and suspend it's interest until the patent is released. It is like shop advertisement "Tomorrow there will be huge discounts" - there are good reasons you don't see them too often.
      • Feb 20 2011: I'm not entirely clear on your reply, but here is my attempt to reply to your reply.

        If the market is willing to wait to purchase something produced using the patent, then is the patent worthwhile? Public protection should be reserved for something that will have meaningful public impact, which could, arguable, be measured by profit in a capitalist economy.

        Also, the anticipated lapse of intellectual property rights exists today and seems to have a positive economic impact, if allowed to occur. I have no data on this, but anecdotally I would reference the ramping up of production on Mickey Mouse memorabilia by companies not licensed by Disney every time that particular copyright is due to lapse (which it inevitably never does).

        I could also anecdotally refer to drug patents and generic versions. Drugs have a clear patent term that is public knowledge, but the non-generic drugs are still purchased, if they are a necessity, before the patent has lapsed.

        Data on the sale of drugs leading up to a prior to the lapse of a patent would be interesting in terms of this discussion, and I may try to find something to that end.

        As far as inefficiency, unfortunately that is reality that can only be mitigated, but cannot be removed. Unless we find ourselves in the Utopia you mentioned previously.

        Until then, I look forward to further discussion.
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    Feb 19 2011: This is very much possible and the need of it is much evident as we have seen the whole music industry crashing in last few decades, many other running for cover as consumer denies the extortion by inventors, artists etc. I think we are already in the process of rationalizing the labor of passion and intellect. Just that the burden of novelty has to be shared equally if pie is to be shared equally . Art and intellectual labor must become part of everyone's daily life before we patents and copyrights vanishing. In the meantime, the ones who invest their time in it for them self as well as on behalf of many others who for some reason can not, will continue to balance the trade this way, which actually would assert pressure on buyers/consumers to contribute in other possible ways.
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    Feb 18 2011: Just to add to my comment: I don't want to appear "communist" or anything. People definitely should be rewarded for their effort, and perhaps there is no other means of motivation (assuming the reward can come in many different currencies, including fame and reputation). But, if the assets that have close to zero copying costs are burdened with high transaction costs, the benefit to the society is muffled. And also innovation is muffled, because people would quickly build upon other people's ideas, if there would be no legal threats for doing that.