50 Years Of Scientific Discovery & Sharing In Antarctica May End Thanks To Patent Greed

from the patents-against-peace dept

For the past 50 years, 47 countries have been a part of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which was used to establish Antarctica as a peaceful science outpost where scientists from many nations could work together and share their discoveries. And it may now all be coming to an end. Why? Because (as Will Klein alerts us) all this discovery and sharing is going on mostly without patenting! This has greatly upset a bunch of companies who want to hoard any such discoveries and want to be able to patent "Antarctic organisms or molecules." Beyond the rather serious question of why either organisms or molecules can be patented, this is a microcosm of what's wrong with patents. Patents are supposed to be used to encourage research (promoting the progress, remember). And this treaty has done a great job promoting progress without patents. As the article notes, products already "derived from Antarctica include dietary supplements, anti-freeze proteins, anti-cancer drugs, enzymes and cosmetic creams." In other words, all of that happened mostly without patents. The only reason to break up this treaty, stop the sharing, and start allowing patents is to slow down the discovery, hoard the results and limit the progress to single companies who get a monopoly on that work.
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Filed Under: antartica, discovery, patents, science, sharing


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  1. identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, 7 Feb 2009 @ 6:27pm

    Re: Re: Open-Minded & Other Things

    Mike:

    Some common ground here. I agree with your statement that the patent and copyright system are designed to "assume market failure in all cases." That, of course, is the trouble with any legislation that treats all things equally.

    Let us focus on patents for a moment. Patents have provided a lot of benefit over time. It has been shown (if you really want evidence, I will go dig it up) that patented inventions spread technology faster than non-patented inventions, benefiting more people faster. Patents encourage the adoption of technology in more geographic locations.

    However, patents were created at a time when technology was very different than it is today. When the current patent system was created (and all the previous ones, for that matter), investment to obtain an invention was relatively huge, and payback times could be incredible. It made sense to encourage invention and to get that invention out as fast as possible. However, it should also be noted that technology moved rather slowly in this times too. In fact, technology has moved relatively slowly until the latter half of the 20th century.

    The problem that we have now is not that patents have no value, but that they may have too much value. If it truly costs 50 million dollars to develop a product, and payback is more than 10 years, patents are doing what they are supposed to do, assuming that we find such a product valuable.

    On the other hand, if it costs $250,000 dollars to develop an invention, and payback is three months, then why are we permitting a patent? This is the problem that we face with patents, and to which I have no immediate answer. However, I have a suggestion.

    Again, assuming that protection of invention in order to obtain payback is in fact a value to society, why not tie patent length to revenue streams? For those inventions that are not exploited within a certain length of time, say five years after issuance, the patents automatically expire without hope of renewal. The maximum possible patent length remains 20 years otherwise.

    Now a company has to show by submitting auditable statements whether it has recouped its investment, and the patent expires on the anniversary of the year following the year payback is achieved.

    Just a thought.

    As far as copyrights, I have mixed feelings. One part of me sees some value in copyrights, but I have significant trouble with copyrights that last for 75 or 100 years, or more. Absurd. If you look at the life of a typical book, it might be months, but typically no more than years. At the very most I might see a copyright for 20 years, but even that is probably excessive. Further, the use of resources, particularly in the movie and recording industry, to track down infringers is huge and wasteful. I have to believe that they are not getting back as much as they spend.

    Keeping things simple: Are the systems perfect. Hah!

    Do the systems need eliminated? No. Though you may not have encountered evidence you find compelling, I have (I guess it depends on whether you find the glass half empty or half full).

    Do the systems need reforms? Yes, absolutely. Even most IP proponents find the current system has issues that cause waste and inefficient allocation of resources. The system needs adjusted.

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