Shooting Down The Claim That The AK-47 Needed Intellectual Property Protection

from the makes-no-sense dept

We see all sorts of odd arguments in favor of intellectual property, but I think this latest one may be the most ridiculous of all. Gautam John points us to a story by Andrew Leonard (whose work I usually think is fantastic, but this time…) claiming that the AK-47 is in trouble because of a failure to use intellectual property. But that’s not what the details show at all. Basically, the issue is that the “official” maker of AK-47s may be on the verge of bankruptcy due to a whole variety of reasons including “a slump in arms exports, high levels of outstanding debt, and the machinations of a mysterious ultranationalist businessman.” So… uh… why is it an IP issue? Well, the Soviet Union apparently offered tons of licenses to many different providers in the early days of the AK, so there’s lots of competition. Leonard notes:

But the real problem may be more akin to the woes currently afflicting the newspaper industry and recorded music business: It’s very hard to make a buck when your product is easily copied and widely accessible.

Well, considering all those other problems were listed first, it’s unclear why it’s the “easily copied” problem that’s the culprit. But even if we grant the premise, the argument still makes no sense at all. First of all, the AK-47 has been made by many different manufacturers for many, many years. It makes no sense that it would be the competition that has now put it out of business, since that competition has been around for ages. Common sense would tell you that it’s not the copying that’s the problem. If it was, this issue would have come up years ago, rather than 60 years after the AK-47 was first created. Second, the report is just about this one manufacturer struggling, not all of the others. That suggests, again, that the problem isn’t in the fact that the AK-47 is so easily copied. After all, all those other manufacturers face that same “problem.”

Finally, there’s no evidence at all that a lack of intellectual property is harming the AK-47 at all. In fact, from the sound of things, it’s still an incredibly popular weapon. The problem is just with a single manufacturer who has other issues to deal with. So, the end result if this one firm goes out of business does no net damage to the market for AK-47s. Others step in to take up the slack. Just because one firm in a market fails, it hardly means that there needed to be stronger intellectual property. That’s a huge, and totally unsubstantiated leap.

Separately, part of Leonard’s reasoning for this is based on a myth that’s been debunked for years. He compares the AK-47 to other technologies where “lower quality” products won out due to “path dependence,” and names the QWERTY keyboard and the VHS (over Betamax) examples. The problem is that, as popular as that story is, it’s a myth. The idea that Dvorak was better than QWERTY isn’t supported by the evidence. Other similar stories have also been debunked. With things like VHS and Betamax, the problem is that the “quality” that people rely on is not the factor by which buyers made their purchase decision on. Sure, the video quality of Betamax may have been “better,” but the overall utility of VHS was much greater because it could record much more per tape.

So, sorry, but I don’t see any evidence that the AK-47 either relied on “path dependence” for success, or that it would be better off today if there was some intellectual property around it. In fact, I’d argue that the whole claim that intellectual property was the problem actually stems from a different story from a couple years ago, where the Russian gov’t suddenly started claiming intellectual property rights over the AK-47 and started demanding payments from manufacturers. That’s not using IP to encourage innovation. It’s a gov’t using it as a tax (which, if anything, would make life more difficult for AK-47 manufacturers… perhaps like the one now going out of business).

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Comments on “Shooting Down The Claim That The AK-47 Needed Intellectual Property Protection”

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Ryan says:

Re: And another govt bail out will be under way .....

I wish someone would tell the general public this. Everytime a business fails, or a plant is shut down, or a government branch is closed, etc. etc. all you hear is about the jobs lost, or the inconvenience to customers, or the loss to investors. Nobody seems to understand that this is a good thing–that jobs and market share and investment capital just get redistributed in the long run to make for a more stable and efficient market.

MBraedley (profile) says:

Re: Re: And another govt bail out will be under way .....

Except few people complain about the overall market. What they complain about is the local economic impact such a closure has on a community. If even a 1/4 of a community is employed in one industry, and all of a sudden it no longer makes economic sense to continue that industry in that community, what do you think happens there? All of a sudden, 1/4 of your workforce is unemployed. If they can’t get another job in a related industry in close proximity to the community quickly, then you start to see ripple effects in the service and tertiary industries. Eventually, if that community can’t attract another primary or secondary industry, it’ll likely disappear.

Sure, the entire market will likely be better off (higher demand for competitors due to lower output from the first company, the same company being able to offer the same product at a lower price and/or higher profit margin, etc), but at the cost of a community being devastated. Jobs may be created somewhere else, but they were lost in that community. From someone who lives in a region where this has happened, it can have a huge and lasting effect until you start to reinvent yourself.

TW Burger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You are all correct. 100 points for Gryffindor. Next, history and origin of the M16:

1. Who invented it?
2. What was its original model designation?
3. What was its nickname by US toops in in Vietnam
4. What was the design originally intended for?
5. What is the current US Military model designation of the new generation of the M16 in current use?

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Side note on Dvorak

The way I’d heard it; the typewriters of the day could not keep pace with the typists of the day; and thus the QWERTY keyboard layout was born (in order to slow them down). Of course, eventually typists of the same or better speed came about with the QWERTY keyboard layout as well–but by then the technology could keep up with their typing speed.

(I could be horribly wrong; I wasn’t there at the time!)

zcat (profile) says:

Re: Re: Side note on Dvorak

not so much ‘slow them down’ as ‘stop them jamming’

The layout was supposed to put common pairs of letters at opposite ends of the keyboard so that as far as possible letters coming up wouldn’t hit the previously typed letter coming back down right beside it.

I don’t know how this explains pairs like ‘de’, ‘es’, ‘er’ and ‘io’ though. They’re pretty common and still right beside each other on the keyboard.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Side note on Dvorak

They are not on the home row. If you touch type by keeping your fingers anchored on the home row, each of those doublets requires two full motions (so you are very unlikely to hit two of them before the first typearm falls back into its home position). This is even more true if you, like me, type ‘e’ and ‘r’ with the same finger (the middle).

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think it’s so much making things up as it is making logical errors. In this case, I think Techdirt’s response is missing the point of the article. The intended claim is that IF the manufacturer had implemented IP protection and not allowed other manufacturers to copy the design, they’d now be the only authorized manufacturer of one of the most popular weapons in the world and thus have a cash cow that would have prevented their current profitability issues. The problem with this line of reasoning is that one of the reasons that the AK-47 is so popular is that it was so widely manufactured and thus so easily available. If the design had been locked up behind IP walls, it’s quite likely that it would never have achieved its current popularity and may even be a footnote in the pages of weapons history by now.

Griper says:

Re: Re: Re:

Remember that the purpose of the AK was to fight the capitalistic imperial dogs of the west. So they churned them out like cookies on a conveyor. And when they realized that they couldn’t keep up with demand they practically gave them away. The licenses were dirt cheap, they just wanted to get them in the hands of the fighters.

So it comes down to the gov’t got what it wanted, a butt load of AK’s flooded the market and the design is so durable that they last a real long time in the harshest of environments with little regard to maintenance.

John Doe says:

The real question is...

Since IP is supposed to advance society, then not having IP hinder the AK 47 was great. Look at all the AK 47s out there; hasn’t society benefited?

Confession time, I am a gun owner and believe in the right to own guns, so the above should be taken as humor by gun owners. Anti-gunners on the other hand will be sure to pile on though. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Rather a ridiculous claim. It sounds like their company is horribly mis managed. If they marketed the AK-47 properly they’d get plenty of money. Many gun collectors have to search far and wide to find an authentic “AK – whatever” movie studios use the Chinese version of the rifle because it looks extremely similar except for a couple differences that take a trained eye to notice, cheaper, and hell of a lot more of them in supply. Typically if you think you’ve seen an AK-47 odds are you haven’t and are viewing a Chinese knockoff. (although calling it a knock off kinda feels strange cause the Chinese version is supposedly better than the original)

The Cenobyte says:

fun facts

AK-47 stands for: Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 or automatic Kalashnikova model of 1947.

AK-47 was designed in the mid 1940s (Between 1944 and 1946) and began issue in 1947.

AK-74 is the modern Avtomat Kalashnikova designed in 1974 and began being issued in 1975. The AK-74 is really an update to the AKM, which was an update to the AK-47.

While the AK47 fires the well known 7.62mmX39mm round, the AK74 fires a much smaller round at 5.54mmX39mm round that fires has a much higher muzzle velocity (710mps for the 47, and 900mps for the 74). The 74 was in responce to the m-16 and the conflict in ‘Nam.

Mikhail Kalashnikov never liked the ak-74. He felt like the smaller faster round was not as good as the heavier slower round of the 47 model.

The Cenobyte says:

fun facts

AK-47 stands for: Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 or automatic Kalashnikova model of 1947.

AK-47 was designed in the mid 1940s (Between 1944 and 1946) and began issue in 1947.

AK-74 is the modern Avtomat Kalashnikova designed in 1974 and began being issued in 1975. The AK-74 is really an update to the AKM, which was an update to the AK-47.

While the AK47 fires the well known 7.62mmX39mm round, the AK74 fires a much smaller round at 5.54mmX39mm round that fires has a much higher muzzle velocity (710mps for the 47, and 900mps for the 74). The 74 was in responce to the m-16 and the conflict in ‘Nam.

Mikhail Kalashnikov never liked the ak-74. He felt like the smaller faster round was not as good as the heavier slower round of the 47 model.

TW Burger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 fun facts

No, our fine national representatives are only concerned with our well being and would never conspire to listen in on or read the private correspondence of a citizen without due cause or proper process through the law. I would like to take this opportunity to state that I am a proud taxpayer that supports our government’s efforts to stop terrorists from taking away our freedom by taking away our rights to privacy and free expression for the preservation of the politician’s image of democracy. Also, I would like to add that unlike my very patriotic self, everyone else here is a subversive mother.

Geof (profile) says:

Dvorak has not been debunked

Mike, the article you link to about Dvorak is inconclusive. It cites flaws in the studies that found Dvorak superior, but all that does is leave the matter unresolved. Its claim seems to amount to “no competing keyboard has offered enough advantage to warrant a change.” Well sure. That is no argument against path dependence. The article basically makes a circular argument that the the market’s choices are optimal, so QWERTY is better.

The article caricatures path dependence as absolute “lock in.” In fact, path dependence does not mean that you cannot switch from an existing technology: it simply says that the costs of doing so are high. When you first build your road infrastructure, for example, you can choose to drive on the left or the right at equal cost. But once that choice has been made, switching it becomes increasingly expensive. That’s path dependence, and no, it hasn’t been debunked.

That isn’t the only problem with the article. There is a whole field of research (particularly Social Construction of Technology theory, or SCOT) around how technologies are chosen and shaped by the choices people make. There is no best or optimal technology. There are only technologies that are better for particular uses or particular groups. A given technology makes some things harder, and other things easier (these are called affordances). You give VHS versus Beta as an example. Beta quality was higher, but VHS length was longer. Which is better? It depends on who you ask. The technology is shaped by the people and interests who use it and influence its development. If early adopters see the technology a certain way, that is likely to shape the technology. Later, more people will use the technology, but in the form set by those who shaped it earlier. The article you point to does not mention any of this broader field of research, or admit that the process is any more complex than its simplified description.

Now, whether path dependence applies to the AK-47 I don’t know. I would think the effects would be much smaller than for a video or keyboard standard. If path dependence does play a role, I would expect it to be amplified by the lack of patent protection. This is how giving something away can be used to set a standard, benefiting the giver. I find it really strange that you are arguing against path dependence when in fact it is a major argument in favor of more open regimes for patents and copyrights.

As to Dvorak, I learned it on a bet several years after learning QWERTY in higschool. I found it was faster (though only barely), more accurate, and definitely easier on the fingers. Previously typing could tire my hands; this no longer happens (except when I switch back to QWERTY, which I do have to do sometimes when away from my own machine). A friend of mine laughed at Dvorak until he got repetitive stress problems; he switched and hasn’t looked back. Of course this is anecdotal. I am not aware of any study that resolves the issue. But that article sure doesn’t.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

There is no best or optimal technology. There are only technologies that are better for particular uses or particular groups.

Great point, and another reason to limit IP to a less obstructive scope.

The same often goes for solutions in IT… I get really, really annoyed when people try to force-sell “best practice” square pegs into round holes.

Matt (profile) says:

Worth noting that the IP protection would have to be much, much stronger than even the draconian malarky we have today. The AK-47 is apparently 62-years-old. The AK-74 is apparently 35-years-old. Whatever innovation these weapons had would be in the public domain by now.

Moreover, if you strengthen the IP, say by increasing its term to 90 years like some copyrights, you still wouldn’t help matters. According to Mike, the technology was broadly licensed. Strong IP _was_ used, it was simply used to spread risk rather than to obtain and maintain a monopoly.

More importantly, at least in the US the goal of IP is _not_ to increase profits of early distributors, but to secure progress. The success of the AK-47 is probably a very good lesson that IP monopolies are counterproductive to that end. Compare the AK-47’s market success with other weapons’, and the unsurprising revelation is that IP monopolies interfere with the dissemination of ideas, and the development of new ones.

Pickle Monger (profile) says:

Say what?

1. Even if we were to accept the version of events that Izhmash would be a lot richer due to copyright, that does not mean that the “additional” money wouldn’t have been stolen as well. I mean “HELLO!” – this is Russia/Soviet Union we are talking about.

2. AK-47 and it’s revamped version of AK-74 are just some of the products. There are newer versions of AK being produced plus the whole myriad of other weapons (rifles, bombs, etc…) being manufactured there. Izhmash produces weapons for both military and civilian applications.

3. Weapons are just a part of what Izhmash makes. Other divisions produce motocycles, cars, industrial machinery, etc…

Conclusion: how possibly could this have been avoided by copyrighting one specific product?

Even if there was copyright in place, it would have belonged to the state not to the factory that produced the product, i.e., Izhmash would not have seen a single penny of that money.

Gunny says:

Value point

The (real) AK is a factory full auto weapon. It’s woes stem from absurd regulations about not being able to sell/own full auto weapons without government interference. Remove US regs and it would stage an amazing financial come back. Just as copyright/patent problems are detrimental to competition, so are silly laws about regulating weapons (or much of anything else). Yep, tell me about food regs protecting us –well I don’t think so… I’d sooner be able to make my own decisions about what is good/safe food, etc., rather then hope some government knows what’s best. You probably noticed I don’t care for big brother thinking for me.

Fred says:

Re: Value point

Yes, I completely agree with this statement. I am looking into purchasing guns and as expensive as the ones I want are ($800-1000 each) the AK-47 (even a cheap “knockoff” would cost me around $15,000 due to Title 1 Automatic Firearms restrictions.

Even without a restriction like this, the other arguments stand. It’s not that IP laws were ignored, since the originator of the AK-47 CHOSE to extend the standard to several manufacturers, thus ensuring that the weapon would be widely adopted, as it was widely available. Once it was not widely available (US regulations) sales obviously dropped, and being mainly a military-only weapon these days, it’s been hurt by the adoption of other competing firearms such as the M-4 and M-16.

So as Mike likes to point out, it’s another case of hanging on to the past instead of finding a better business model – if these weapons were available to the general public at a competitive price, they could make up for Military adoption of other weapons. The AK-47 is a very good weapon.

Vincent Clement says:

So like the newspaper industry, this company took on too much debt just as demand for their product started to plummet. Ooops.

So what do they blame?

‘Weak’ IP laws.

‘If we only had stronger IP laws, we could succeed’.

Not ‘If we only didn’t take on so much debt’ or ‘If we could improve the value of our product’.

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