A series of articles that touch on important themes related to intellectual property has caught my attention today as I scanned a few of my favorite websites today, for the first time in a while.
The New York Times reports on the efforts of the International Commission on Intellectual Property Rights to persuade the World Trade Organization to hold developing countries to less strict standards of enforcement for intellectual property violations. “Why toil for months or years to develop a new drug or think up a clever software program, the thinking goes, unless there is the potential for a big payoff?” the article asks, recalling my own question in the essay posted on this site last week. Part of the answer, at least, the Times observes may lie in the “criticism that the corporate frenzy to patent any technical advance, even business methods, undermines innovation by unnecessarily restricting the flow of ideas.” Without access to this flow of ideas, it is very difficult for developing countries short on cash to compete in fields like medicine and information technology and reap economic benefits from successes in these fields.
The article offers an interesting historical perspective, as well, suggesting that America’s 20th-century dominance owes itself in part to its “swashbuckling” attitude toward intellectual property, making use of others’ innovations without tribute to help foster its own developing economy.
The Economist ran an article last week on Lawrence Lessig, an attorney who has gained notoriety for his opposition to laws that favor strong protection of intellectual property. An excerpt:
Mr Lessig argues that Congress’s latest extension of copyright is unconstitutional, because it ignores the balance between the interests of copyright holders and those of the public. The constitution grants Congress the power to grant copyrights and patents only for “limited times” in order to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” How, he asks, can the retrospective extension of the rights of dead authors be an incentive to present-day creativity?
Finally, Salon published an article by Sam Williams, author of a biography on Richard Stallman, in which he considers the hypothesis that “casting a blind eye toward piracy may simply be good business.” The idea is that “companies stand to make more money if they view each new illegal user as one more mouthpiece for the software and one less customer for the competition.” He writes:
The argument for allowing piracy boils down to two words: network effects. Without a critical mass of users, most software products tend to wither and die. Conversely, the more users a software product acquires, particularly a consumer-oriented software product, the more valuable it becomes. This is especially true for operating systems, which require significant third-party support from application developers to stave off obsolescence.