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Intellectual Property

Entry 316, on 2006-05-01 at 14:28:15 (Rating 3, News)

Who owns information, and what should be thought of as a tradable commodity, and what should be placed above this classification? I've been thinking about this a bit recently as a result of some comments which came from the Access to Knowledge Conference being held at Yale University, and some recent ideas being considered by law-makers in the USA.

The easy response to the question who owns a new idea is that it is the person or group who created it. The problem is that this often is not the best approach, first because very idea and invention is based on many developments by others in the past (many of which can't be protected by patent or copyright), and second because even if an organisation is entirely responsible for a new idea, its not in the best interests of the majority to give them too much power over that idea.

Most of the great discoveries in the past have been clearly the result of incremental changes, and it is rare for anything to be developed totally without any existing knowledge in the area. So why should one organisation (today this would usually be a large corporation) gain all the benefits for the final commercial aspect of a new idea?

An example of the total stupidity of this sort of way of thinking is shown in attempts at patenting the human genome. This work is the result of the research of many scientists, and clearly the best interests of the majority can't possibly be met by having an organisation owning this information.

The usual argument used to support ownership of this sort of material is that unless there is a significant monetary reward for doing research, then that research won't be done. Take away the right of ownership of the results of research, and what reason is there to do it in the first place? There is a certain amount of truth in this, but many of the greatest discoveries in the past have been made by organisations who don't fully follow the profit model, such as universities, and private labs doing non-specific fundamental research like Bell Labs, and the cooperative model used in science has been shown to be far more productive than the capitalist competitive model in most situations.

So maybe research should be classified in two ways: fundamental research which is of benefit to everyone, and specific product research which might lead to a new development but which is of only secondary importance to science. The first would be carried out by organisations mainly funded by tax (universities, etc), and the second would be open to anyone and be able to be exploited commercially. Tech companies should be taxed more to fund the first group, because they only exist because of the basic research which has been made available to the science community over many years.

Unfortunately most law-makers have no science background, and many are also funded by large corporations, so a fair outcome in this area is unlikely. Maybe its up to all technologists and scientists to reject laws which give ownership of fundamental ideas wherever possible, and maybe we might see a gradual improvement.

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