Recognizing How Much Of The World Is A Patent Free Zone

from the but-is-it-enough-to-matter? dept

Vivek Wadhwa has an interesting post at TechCrunch, pointing out that much of the world beyond the US, Europe and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are effectively a patent free zone. Even if many of these places do have patent laws, very few companies find it worth the trouble to file for patents in those places -- and, technically, that means that anyone producing products in those areas can legally copy from the patents filed elsewhere.
Take the iPhone as an example: it has over 1000 patents; yet Apple does not apply for patent protection in countries like Peru, Ghana, or Ecuador, or, for that matter, in most of the developing world. So entrepreneurs could use these patent filings to gain information to make an iPhone-like device that solves the unique problems of these countries. Apple has so far received 3287 U.S.-issued patents and has 1767 applications pending: a total of 5054 (for all of its products). Yet it has filed for only about 300 patents in China and has been issued 19. In India, it has filed only 38 patent applications and has received four patents. In Mexico it has filed for 109 and received 59 patents. So even India, China, and Mexico are wide-open fields.
Of course, if you were to make an iPhone in Peru or Ghana, you wouldn't be able to export it to the US, as then it would again be considered infringing. So, the market size for a "legal" knockoff iPhone might be pretty limited. On top of that, there's a pretty good reason why companies like Apple don't bother filing for patents in these places: the economy and the local infrastructure really aren't advanced enough to make a difference. So, even if these are "patent free zones," the lack of other institutions to make innovation and economic growth important mean that this really doesn't matter very much.

Still, it does raise some questions about if there are "opportunities" within those patent free zones. Certainly, it would not be a historical anomaly to see part of the patent free zone step up and use that fact to help it industrialize. As we've seen in the past, countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands used the fact that they were patent free zones for parts of the 19th century to speed up their industrialization process. But, of course, as we saw with both of those, once their industries got big enough, foreign competitors started to freak out and put tremendous pressure on those countries to put in place patent laws.

However, there are some areas where the ability to ignore patents could be quite helpful, especially for areas that could massively help those developing nations:
Take desalination, in which GE is one of the largest players. GE has spent more than $4.1 billion to acquire its part of the desalination business. Yet a decade after commencing, they're still nowhere close to making desalination affordable and sustainable. GE's progress depends on the patents it owns. As of 2009, GE invented 47 of the 832 U.S. patents in this field--just 5.6%, or a little more than one-twentieth. Consider the progress that GE could make if it could also use any of the patents that it doesn't own--of which there are many.

How much better would the world be if we didn't have to spend another ten years waiting for innovation in the desalination space? There are many areas of collaboration in the Patent-Free Zone that could produce innovative solutions for our world. Solar power, electric cars, mobile technologies for the poor, disease eradication, medical devices, food processing--to name a few. Wouldn't it be ironic if poor countries ended up solving the problems of the rich?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    senshikaze (profile), Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 4:59am

    Those last two paragraphs are telling.
    How much further as a species would we be if patents were limited to less than a decade? As it is, it takes forever for any competition in any field to catch up to company A, and, by that point, company A is making so much off of the original product that they fight tooth and nail any advancement that might, no matter how short term, lower their profits.
    Then again, it may be the culture of business in the developed world: you must always make profits, even at the expense of your customers, the rest of the economy, human advancement and even human lives.

    Isn't capitalism great?(not that anything else is any better -_-)

     

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  2.  
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    Michial Thompson, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:09am

    Re:

    So now it's the corporations responsibility to become welfare? Why on earth would a company loose money intentionally just to make some worthless IP thief's life easier?

    Think about it, you wouldn't go to work and then pay your employer so why the hell would you expect your employer to loose money?

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:15am

    Two points:
    a) the reason nobody copies things like the iPhone (except in Chine, where it is copied a loooooooot) is IMHO that it's not worth it. The cellphone companies where you could sell with a subsidy will never touch it, as they are mostly based in Europe or the US, and the public will probably see it as a cheap copy. Which is why I don't think the patent system is needed to start with.
    b) IMHO the US (and Europe) is entering a position where every innovation must pay the patent tax. This doesn't happen in most of the world. I think countries like Japan an India will sooner or later use that advantage, and US and Europe will be worst for it. They will then try to inflict their patent damage there, but hopefully it will be too late. And that is why I think the patent system is harmful.

     

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  4.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:20am

    Patents have become irrelevant for complex gadgets.

    Except from the lawyer's view, of course, where it guarantees full employment. But the technical details are too complex and interwoven to figure out, and the whole system -- except for rare fundamental claims -- should be abandoned.

    Now, what does "Consider the progress that GE could make if it could also use any of the patents that it doesn't own" mean? Since GE can presumably license any of those?

    The quoted author unintentionally emphasizes my point that patents should only be for fundamentals: "How much better would the world be if we didn't have to spend another ten years waiting for innovation in the desalination space?" -- Sounds like he was born just yesterday (especially with the woozy idealism), and seems to have no idea that the fundamentals of desalination have been obvious for at least a century (boil sea water, condense steam), all current patents are merely around the fringes.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:33am

    Re: Re:

    What, you don't like welfare?

    So you are against IP laws then?

    Attaboy!

     

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  6.  
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    R. Miles (profile), Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:48am

    "Wouldn't it be ironic if poor countries ended up solving the problems of the rich?"
    Doesn't history show this is more of a fact than an ironic situation?

    Poor immigrants work to build a rich nation.

    Poor areas account for a large "discovery" percentage of medicines or causes of disease.

    Conflicts in poor nations are often used to bring together rich nations to combat atrocities.

    No, this isn't ironic. It's pathetic because it is ironic.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 7:02am

    Leaves it really wide open for the NEW software patents.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 7:05am

    Re:

    It can't be ironic if it happens every day. Poor people are ALWAYS solving problems for the rich. That's what being rich really means: that you can afford to pay some poor shlub to take the rap/cover the whole thing up! Seriously, what rock has this author been living under?

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 7:06am

    Re: Re:

    "So now it's the corporations responsibility to become welfare?"

    No, it's just not societies responsibility to provide corporations with welfare by granting them unowed monopolies.

     

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  10.  
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    TAMT, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 7:16am

    aww lil' Michee confuses progress with theft

    You're one confused gringo...

     

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  11.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 8:04am

    Re: Re:

    Hey little michi t! It would be nice if employers loose money. As it is, the money is too tightly grasped inside their little greedy fists, some loosening would be nice.

     

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  12.  
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    CommonSense (profile), Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 8:48am

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, loose money is a huge problem....it should all be tightly bundled and stashed in an air-tight safe.

    I kid, but seriously, it's not about any corporation becoming 'welfare'. That's a pretty outrageous jump to make to begin with, but under close examination, it's an outright lie.

    For starters, to claim that a company would be LOSING money just because people could get their product from somewhere else is disingenuous. There is NO promise that they would be getting that money in the first place. Second, we aren't talking about corporations supporting anything, we're talking about not letting corporate greed trample over humanitarian and societal progress, just for the quarterly profit. To think that corporations' best interests are the same as a consumers' best interests is to be willingly ignorant or unfortunately naive.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 9:54am

    In truth, the vast majority of sovereign nations, be they economic powerhouses or pitifully poor, are members of various international treaties (e.g., the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT))requiring the establishment of national patent systems. However, not all patent systems are created equal, and in many of these nations the systems border on illusory. Thus it is fair to say there are "patent-free zones", but only in the sense that such zones result from national patent systems providing only the most minimal of patent coverage, both substantively and judicially.

     

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  14.  
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    Richard, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 11:53am

    Disruptive Technology Insurance

    If we could just nullify every method patent and explicitly bar those in the future, then there would be no real problem. The patent system absolutely must revert to a sane, conservative 1970s framework. Where patents were the exception, not the rule. Getting a patent should require a far greater burden of research on all three sides. The applicant, the USPTO and a public input window of opportunity to terminate the application. As it stands today, the USPTO is little more than disruptive technology insurance for The Owners.

     

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  15.  
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    jd (profile), Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 5:54pm

    Businesses make money, that's their function bottom line.

    However, I do agree with limiting the length of time on patents. Just because somebody thinks of an idea doesn't mean that the idea would never have been thought of by somebody else in the future. If a person has an idea on how to improve a product, they're limited because of the original patent. If patents are allowed to be extended for long durations, then advancement on that product from outside sources are severely limited.

    Take internet browsing for example. Internet Explorer was great when it first came out. IE and Netscape (AOL too I hate to admit..hah) made the internet alot easier for common people to use. However, they were being advanced a certain way where other people could see room for improvement. Along came the others..Opera/Safari/Firefox/Chrome and added functionality into it that other people wanted and ultimately makes the browsing experience better. Compare IE6 to Chrome for example. Microsoft had to start adapting the product to what people wanted out of browsing (tabbed browsing for example) once alternatives started coming out. Now, I know that Web browsers aren't patented, but that is an example of how something that's not patented allowed progress to be made.

    Businesses should be able to make money, but not put a long term stranglehold on an idea.

    An example of what I'd consider a frivolous patent is Apples' swipe gesture to unlock the Iphone. Taken to an extreme, can you imagine if there was a patent to "redirect a customer to a different URL by clicking on a link"? All these little obvious patents need to go away.

     

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  16.  
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    J, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 6:26pm

    To be fair, a lot of these countries also ignore all intellectual property. Speaking as someone in the games industry, we know that Brazil is a total crap country to sell products in because of the rampant piracy. It serves as a very good counterpoint to the "piracy should be legal" crap that gets thrown around by people like Mike Masnick. If everyone behaved like Brazil we'd be out of business, and gamers would be forced to play games that look like they were built in the 1990s.

     

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  17.  
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    Acacio, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 8:04pm

    Re:

    The problem is not exactly piracy.. Piracy in Brazil is caused mainly by the stupid and huge taxes that are applied to games and other electronics..

    A PS3 console, for example: In US, you can take it for $299.99. The same PS3 in Brazil, with the taxes, costs $739.99 (more than twice the price!)

    An original game in US, for the same PS3 (Metal Gear Solid 4) costs $17.99. In Brazil, it costs $52... 3 times the price! It's a complete unfair comparison..

     

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  18.  
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    JustSomeGuy, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 8:11pm

    I'm not so sure...

    One certain large company files patent dockets in the US, Taiwan and under the PCT (three "jurisdictions"). I'm pretty certain PCT (the patent co-operation treaty) covers the whole planet except Taiwan and Argentina (or something like that).

    So you may get a lot of coverage with minimal filing.

     

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  19.  
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    Mike Masnick, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 10:50pm

    Re:

    Speaking as someone in the games industry, we know that Brazil is a total crap country to sell products in because of the rampant piracy. It serves as a very good counterpoint to the "piracy should be legal" crap that gets thrown around by people like Mike Masnick. If everyone behaved like Brazil we'd be out of business, and gamers would be forced to play games that look like they were built in the 1990s.

    Only if you stuck with a bad business model of selling what shouldn't be sold. But if you adopted smarter business models, then you could do quite well.

    You seem to assume that the only way you could possibly make money is to sell digital games directly. This is wrong.

     

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  20.  
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    you_are_wrong, Aug 3rd, 2010 @ 10:59pm

    Re: Patents have become irrelevant for complex gadgets.

    Most advanced desalination nowadays is with reverse osmosis using memberanes.

     

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  21.  
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    Jason Kostempski, Aug 4th, 2010 @ 7:19am

    Re: Re:

    No one is asking companies to "become welfare". The question here is, would the world as a whole benefit from patent length be shortened or removed? That might cause some companies to loose money, but that's their problem. If they're any good at what they do, they'll figure out how to work within the new rules of the system, if not, it's likely the world benefits a little just from them going under because either their product sucked, they sucked at producing or they were sitting on a patent simply to stop others from making something better than their product, which is a dick move, and as the wise philosopher Wil Wheaton once said, "Don't be a dick".

     

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  22.  
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    Lobo, Aug 5th, 2010 @ 11:02am

    Spelling Error

    It's "lose" people, not "loose". Christ.

     

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  23.  
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    Hum Dee, Aug 5th, 2010 @ 6:02pm

    Re:

    Thats why there are royalties. GE for example could pay a royalty to use technology patented by others.

     

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