from the spreading-the-knowledge dept
As Techdirt has noted many times, the patent system is broken, and in various ways. One major problem is the way it inhibits innovation, rather than promoting it, as its supporters usually claim. Here's why:
The patent system was created to advance societal benefit by encouraging clearly defined public disclosure of inventions, in exchange for a strictly limited monopoly. The intent is that the invention may be used wherever and whenever the patent monopoly is not in force.
That's taken from a page on the site of a new tool called the "Lens". It's the brainchild of Richard Jefferson, probably best known for setting up Cambia, which describes itself as "an independent non-profit institute creating new technologies, tools and paradigms to promote change and enable innovation," and the open-source biology project BiOS. Here's what the Lens is for:
The trouble is that unless information is readily available about whose patents are in force over what technology where, the system doesn't work well. People may unwittingly infringe patents they don't know about, avoid areas of innovation in which they are entitled to be creative, or make poor investments based on incomplete information about which rights are granted and who holds these rights.
to create transparency in the patent system, and to serve the public worldwide as a platform to explore, understand and improve its impact on society. The Lens informatics tools can assist the user to determine the boundaries of intellectual property constraints on deliverable innovations, and usable building blocks for future innovations.
As pointed out to us by @gnat, there's an excellent profile of Jefferson in Grist, which explains the larger goal of his new project as follows:
he's trying to radically transform the entire system of innovation to make it more inclusive and local: He wants a system that empowers farmers in Africa to invent their own solutions, rather than looking to multinational corporations for fixes.
The problem is that patents do not promote innovation in those contexts:
the people who need new solutions most, like farmers in developing countries, are isolated in a system that discourages ground-level innovation. Instead, we have a small group of companies in rich countries, with a stranglehold on patents, designing all the solutions to fit their own business models. This system works primarily to bring in money for these companies, to maintain their privilege, and to exclude competition.
More specifically, the problem is that:
the patent system has grown so complex that only a few experts understand it. It's impossible for normal people to navigate the patent thickets to discover the treasures there, or see the dangers. And these days everything from a cellphone to a seed requires dozens of separate patents for the component parts. The solution, he said, is mapping it out: what he calls "innovation cartography."
The rest of the Grist article explores Jefferson's ideas further, and is well-worth reading. It includes a wonderful historical parallel from the 16th century -- involving a different kind of map:
the Iberian peninsula controlled all the information needed to send merchant ships to Asia (and, to a large extent, the New World as well). The Iberians had invested heavily in research and development, sending out De Gama, Magellan, Dias, Columbus, all those explorers to map the world. And because they were the only Europeans with reliable maps of the East Indies -- these maps were state secrets -- the Iberians had a monopoly.
The result was great wealth and power for those that controlled the maps, but also stagnation within their industries, because they had no need to innovate -- the money kept rolling in anyway. The parallels with the present state of the patent system, where large returns are possible without the need to innovate further, are clear.
But back in the 16th century, something happened:
Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was working as a secretary for the Portuguese archbishop in Goa, India. In that capacity, he traveled all over the world. Somewhere along the way, he got his hands on the Portuguese maps, and he copied them.
He not only copied them, he made them freely available, with dramatic effects on the entire world:
Linschoten published the maps in 1596. The British East India Company started in 1600; the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. The Dutch East India Company also represented an innovation in financing: It was the first joint stock company, and its formation gave rise to trade in options and derivatives. Once the maps were available and the Iberian monopoly was broken, new ideas flowered, and new investment flowed.
This is how Jefferson thinks the Lens will be used to unleash a new wave of investment and innovation, just as Linschoten's maps did:
Now we have a similar situation, Jefferson said. There is a tremendous opportunity -- not in mapping Asia and the Americas, but in mapping the patent system and all of its related knowledge.
anyone can look up patents and grab recipes for creating technologies. This is especially true of the people who need innovation most, because patents don't apply in most developing countries. Patents can only stop use of an invention in the country in which they're granted. An enterprising Ugandan company could look up the instructions for Monsanto's seeds in the patent literature, and build them tomorrow, without breaking the law, Jefferson said. The innovators and entrepreneurs are out there, he said -- they just need the maps to show investors that the technology exists and their plans are legal and feasible.
It's a radical approach: using the patent system to provide both the raw ideas that might help developing countries, as well as key information about where that can be done without running into legal problems. In other words, it's all about putting the missing transparency back into patents.