Is Intellectual Property Protection a Hidden Transfer of Wealth from Society To A Few?

If there is a sacred cow in America, it is Protection of Intellectual Property or IP in short. There is good reason for this practice.  Most of the world’s inventions are American in origin. American society has been enriched by the inventions of its citizens, individuals and corporations.

If these inventions are not protected by a strict doctrine of intellectual property protection, then American society could lose its edge, its advantage. Other countries with lower manufacturing costs could reverse engineer or copy America’s inventions and undersell American companies that invented the products. This is simple common sense and it is the basis beneath America’s vast patent system.

But, it is time to ask whether the concept has been taken to such an extreme that it is now hurting American Society. It is time to wonder whether the system designed to foster and protect innovation is now actually killing innovation. It is time to ask whether a system designed to protect American Society is now hurting American Society to help a few who are only interested in preserving their riches.

The best example is the most widely known and the one that made one man the richest man in the world. It is Microsoft and Bill Gates. Mr. Gates was hired by IBM to find the best operating system for personal computers. He identified one but its founder was unwilling to speak with IBM. So Gates licensed his own operating system, MS-DOS to IBM. That one act made Bill Gates extremely rich. Later his company Microsoft developed Windows on top of MS-DOS. Today, Windows powers the vast majority of personal computers in the world. This has made Bill Gates the richest man in the world.

But, Bill Gates did not become the world’s richest man because he built the greatest software in the world and he did not become so by continuously keeping Windows as the world’s best software. No, he became the world’s richest man because American’s Intellectual Property System prevented any body else from improving his original software.

Imagine if protection for Windows had only lasted for 10 years or 20 years. Silicon Valley would have developed far superior and cheaper operating systems for personal computers. These new, innovative companies would have created more jobs and created wealth among a larger number of people. The American consumer would have benefited from better and cheaper products. But this did not happen. The vast American apparatus of IP Protection worked to ensure that Bill Gates and his company became amazingly rich at the expense of American society.

Microsoft is only one example. Every American industry has become fat because of the protection of America’s vast IP machine. Music, for example, can be protected forever. So Media companies buy rights to young musicians to lock up their music forever. We do not believe that Beatles invented their music independent of the influence of those who came before them. To deny future musicians the right to imitate, improvise or extend that music is a travesty. Beatles and their estate became extremely rich while the world was deprived of improvisation of their music.

The problem is eternal protection of Intellectual property. A period of 10 or 20 years should be ample to protect the rights of innovators and inventors. After that, others must be allowed to improve and extend the original inventions.

The fad of Intellectual Property has reached virtually every ludicrous nook and corner of innovation. A few years ago, a new IP movement began creating process patents. Any “new” process, a simply different way of doing the same thing, became patentable.

The drive to find patentable ideas or processes reached such a ridiculous level that corporations began taking advantage of the ignorance of low-paid patent examiners by packaging ideas that have exceeded for centuries. There was a race to do so before the original inventors or countries were even aware of these patent applications. None of these companies had any responsibility to inform the American patent examiners about ideas that were developed elsewhere at previous times.

But, now other countries are waking up. This is the story detailed by Emily Wax of the Washington Post in her article about “Yoga Theft“.

  • But in the birthplace of yoga, an Indian government agency is fighting what it calls “yoga theft” after several U.S. companies said they wanted to copyright or patent their versions. Yoga is a part of humanity’s shared knowledge, the agency says, and any business claiming the postures as its own is violating the very spirit of the ancient practice. 
  • India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library has gathered a team of yogis from nine schools and 200 scientists to scan ancient texts, including the writings of Patanjali, thought to be the original compiler of yoga sutras. The group is documenting more than 900 yoga postures and making a video catalogue of 250 of the most popular ones, from sun salutation to downward-facing dog. 
  • The catalogue will be released next month and given to the international patent system, which yoga gurus in India say is essential in an age when cultural traditions can cross borders instantaneously.

We think the Yoga issue is the first of many IP issues that will trouble global trade. It is inevitable we think that corporations that rely on intellectual property protection will be accused of hoarding as companies warehousing food were accused of hoarding in earlier generations. Any company that is overzealous in asserting its IP may end up being charged with class action liability. Already, America’s drug companies are being attacked around the world for hurting poor people with their insistence on high drug prices and their protection from reverse engineering.

The danger is that such movements might go too far as movements normally do. If so, they could seriously damage the Intellectual Property doctrine itself.

That is why we think the time has come for a serious rethink of intellectual property and the scope of protection society should provide to inventors.

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