When I was in college I wrote a paper about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (or was it Trade and Tariffs, I could never get that straight) which became the World Trade Organization. The general thesis of the paper was that Intellectual Property (IP) rights have gone overboard in favor of corporations. You have companies trademarking or putting patents on things like seeds and farming techniques that have been in practice for hundreds if not thousands of years.
I am not saying that all IP rights are bad. But I am really struggling about where to draw the line. On some level I question why it is that someone gets to say “I can make this and nobody else can.” The argument for IP protection is that people put all this time into something and they should be getting compensated for it. On the other hand shouldn’t the value, and therefore the compensation, derive from a combination of continued innovation plus the benefit of being the first to market and the halo of thought leader?
The thought process stemmed from reading a bottle of liquid soap and seeing that there was something called honey calendula that was trademarked. Now I have no idea what calendula is, but I have to believe it was some clever way putting together already existing molecules with honey to make something that apparently I shouldn’t be cleaning my hands without. So some company now gets to have a lock on this creation for a very long time. A creation that stems from something that everyone has access to or “owns.”
My wife was a brilliant childcare professional for a very long time. I started thinking – what if she had IP protection? Her creation is a child that has amazing communication skills and is incredibly creative. (Obviously other people, like parents, are involved in the process, but lets leave that out of my absurdist logic). What if she were able to trademark that child. Think of the money she could make off of her/his work throughout their lifetime. Obviously this could never happen, but what is it that gives some industries the right to patent things and others not. And why can some things get patented by people who don’t even own the building blocks for those things to begin with?
My knowledge of IP is not the best, but if memory servers the protection is on the process not the ingredient. But then could my wife have protected the process by which she does childcare? I know it is a lot more complicated than I can really tease out in this little blog entry. But, I guess the bigger question is where does it end – where do you say “ok, the world has enough patents?”
I know there are lots of really talented people who deserve lots of money for the tremendous work they do. And companies invest significant research and development into the things they patent. But it really seems like there has to be a better way. Will people really stop inventing things if there are no more patents?