Is it a good idea to give away a good idea? 22/02/14

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 22 February 2014

As the economy develops and international trade grows, Bangladesh will face increasing pressure to tighten up intellectual property laws. The centrality of information and knowledge to the global economy will drive this as the importance and value of ideas continues to rise.

Even if such pressures were avoidable, the arguments for more protection of intellectual property rights are clear. Copyright and patents reward creative activity and promote economic growth.

It is also only fair to help artists and inventors to profit from their efforts.

This is most readily appreciated in instances of plagiarism and unauthorised uses of copyrighted works. An interesting use of copyright law was made recently by a Canadian band, Skinny Puppy, to protest the use of their music by the US military to torture prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. After learning their work had been used without permission as a tool of mental subjugation, the band submitted a pointedly Satanic bill for $666,000 to the US defence department. While they did not do this in expectation of actually being paid, their highlighting of the practice in this way has clearly done a public service.

Yet, while many may appreciate this use of copyright law, most people are unlikely to see it as a deterrent to film and music piracy. It is much easier to have empathy for an artist whose work has been misappropriated for military and political purposes, than it is to stop watching pirated films or taking advantage of internet downloads. (And of course in Bangladesh, the latter is impossible to avoid, at least for non-domestically produced media.)

When most of the value of an invention or artwork is retained or exploited by a large corporation rather than identifiable living individuals, it becomes easier to argue for limits on intellectual property rights.  Outside a small number of music industry executives, it’s safe to assume few people in the world care that “Happy Birthday to You” is protected under US law till 2030.

Tell people further that the melody and lyrics were in printed circulation for at least two decades before a company copyrighted them in 1930, and that companies such as Disney have successfully lobbied to extend US copyright periods in the years since, and they are more likely to see this as a form of monopoly power that ought to be restrained.

Getting the balance right between benefits to society and the moral and economic arguments for rewarding inventors and artists, is inevitably the object of much philosophical and legal debate.

In practice, the only workable answer is to take a pragmatic approach, as otherwise intellectual property rights would only largely benefit lawyers, as can be seen from the ever growing list of corporations seeking to trademark common words and phrases.

In general, people and governments have tended to be more sympathetic to extending the rights of individual artists and their families, rather than industrial innovations. This is why, for instance, patent protection for pharmaceutical products worldwide are actually relatively short, compared to, say, rights for authors, despite continual lobbying by Big Pharma.

The benefits of new and better drugs are simply far too important for human health to countenance monopoly protections which keep drugs expensive for longer periods. This is also why international agreements permit some exceptions to developing countries on drug patent laws and why South Africa’s efforts to import generic anti-retroviral drugs to combat AIDS have been widely applauded.

Similarly, Bangladesh is well known for the success of the Essential Drug policy adopted by the government in 1982. Its benefits have included cheap prices for medicines and a self-sufficient and increasingly innovative pharmaceutical sector, which is exporting to more and more countries.

Clearly then, the greater good can sometimes be served by an element of pragmatism rather than universal tough enforcement of intellectual property rights.

One downside of short patent periods for drugs in Western countries, however, is that the largest pharmaceutical companies focus their R&D efforts even more on products with the most commercial potential in rich countries, rather than those that would have the widest human health benefit.

The cost-benefit permutations of gains to the greater good, creativity, and the economy from stringent enforcement of intellectual property rights, are therefore always open to debate.

It is interesting then to reflect on those inventors who have chosen to give away great ideas and concepts which have proved to have wide (and massive) commercial applications. Their reasons have varied. Sometimes, it was to create an industry standard (the inventors of MIDI – the Musical Instrument Digital Interface for instruments and computers), sometimes because they thought the idea would not be realised in their lifetime (concept papers for communications satellites) and sometimes they did it for political reasons (the creator of the famous chicken foot circle peace symbol).

I’m not going to share their names, because thanks to Wikipedia and the world wide web, which were also freely shared by their inventors, they can easily be looked up on a computer …

As the popularity of open source software and Creative Commons style licences continues to show, many inventors and innovators have a strong sense of altruism in wanting to share their insights for the common good. The world undoubtedly benefits from such people.

As Newton famously popularised, civilisation, progress, and science are built by standing on the shoulders of giants. Nobody knows the names of the persons who first invented the wheel, or discovered which foods are safe to eat, but everyone owes them a thank you.

But this fact in itself is not reason enough to allow lax enforcement of intellectual property rights. Bangladesh, like other countries adapting to globalisation, will have to participate in a balancing act to bring its laws and practices up to date. So long as laws to reward inventors are pragmatic, proportional, and accountable to democratic scrutiny, they will benefit both individual innovators and society at large.

However much we can all applaud the generosity and humility of individuals who choose to give their ideas away, we must not forget that even the most victimless forms of piracy are a form of theft.

– See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2014/02/21/is-it-a-good-idea-to-give-away-a-good-idea/