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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Curly Capitalist Question 5 Patenting Life Forms

My old mate Cameron has an interesting question.

Trev I would like to ask you about where you and/or ACT sits in the debate about patenting life forms.

Over the last few years there have been attempts by multinational corporations to try and secure patents on actual life forms (ie things made by Mother nature or hundreds of years of developing farming. For example the American chemical company WR Grace patented the Neem tree, which has been used by Indians for centuries for its medicinal properties.

Another company Ricetec patented Basmati Rice, which has been cultivated by people in South Asia for centuries. Thankfully both these idiotic patents have been overturned.

Should corporations be able to patent what they haven't actually invented, Either processes that are natural or have been practiced by people for centuries?

At the moment it seems corporations, backed by WTO rules like TRIPS (Trade related international property rights) seem to be able to go around the world see a nice plant like the Neem tree and say "wow that's a nice plant, I know we haven't invented it but no one else has patented it so why don't we?"

Is this right?

Thanks Cameron. I can't speak for ACT on this one, only for myself.

The answer is no. Patenting is a way to establish property rights over something you have actually created. It must be new concept, technology or combination of ingredients.

Ethically speaking, you can no more patent a neem tree than you can patent a new species of moth you have discovered in the Southern Alps.

You didn't create the tree, therefore you can't patent it. Patents should be hard to get and extremely specific.

However there is another side to the coin. It isn't just corporations who try this rubbish on.

I note that some indigenous tribes, including Maori are trying to establish property rights over their culture, traditional medicines, native plants etc. The recent case where some Maori, embarrassed a tobacco company into dropping its "Maori" brand of cigarettes in Israel is a case in point. Maori (or anyone else) have every right to object about the use of words they find offensive. However they should have absolutely no legal recourse, if the tobacco company should choose to ignore their concerns.

Culture is a collective thing. No-one has a right to claim property rights over the haka, the koru, waiata, Te Reo, or even the word Maori.

Likewise, the French should have claim on the word Champagne for example. Champagne is a generic term, applying to a certain style of wine originally made in the Champagne region. It should be no more "protectable" than "Danish" pastries, "Welsh" rarebit or "Belgian" biscuits.

The English have no exclusive rights over Morris Dancing, fish and chips, nursery rhymes, cockney rhyming slang etc.

Neither should Maori or other races attempt to "own" aspects of their culture, native plants or widely known "traditional' remedies or recipes.

Patents should be a very specific and temporary protection for something new. If you don't then use it, you should lose it.


Blogger Berend de Boer said...

I would also add that you should only be able to claim a patent on something that costs genuine effort and money.

In my field, software engineering, companies have tried, and gotten, patents for something that many people, with a few seconds of thinking, will come up with.

Patents should be to protect research and investment. In the world Yacap prefers, no one would bother to put real money into improving medicine because when the research is done, everyone could rip you off. Duplicating millions of effort is often easy.

Yacap, don't you prefer companies to invest real money in medical research? Don't you think that should be encouraged?

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many "libertarians" are confused by the use of the misnomer "intellectual property" into automatically assuming that it's about property, and therefore a good and valid thing.

This is a good point, Intellectual Property is simply a idealistic concept, at least with actual property there is a materialist basis; if I have a can of cola and I give it to you then you have a can of cola and I have nothing, but, say I have a great cola recipe, and I give it to you, now we both have a great cola recipe.

(as you're all well aware I'm not a right-libertarian, however, for the sake of arguement, heres a hyperthetical)

In a free market, we could both start making and selling cola, though competition the cola recipe would constantly improve as we each tried to stay one step ahead of the other, the cola would become cheaper of course as we competed for customers, and in the process we would be improving production by constantly looking for more efficient ways to produce cola.

With a patent on my cola recipe, I can sell my cola for a fixed price, and have no incentive to improve on the recipe or make production more efficient.

Therefore, aren't productions a restriction of the free market? I think this is what Yacap meant by describing intellectual property as a "sort of communism" ?

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh and by the way for anyone interested, the inspiration for the cola analogy

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Argh, that should be "aren't Patents a restriction..."

12:22 PM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...

Yacap-while you may have owned the ingredients, you did create the mental energy to integrate them into something of use.

Many 16th century Englishmen "owned" quill and ink, but it took Shakespeare to create something with them.

Yacap-do you believe in copyright? Can I wrote a novel or a song and copyright it? Can I "own" the physical expression of my ideas?

1:32 PM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...


"With a patent on my cola recipe, I can sell my cola for a fixed price, and have no incentive to improve on the recipe or make production more efficient."

Not quite. Even if you have exclusive rights to your cola recipe, you are still subject to competition and price pressure. Coca Cola still competes with Pepsi, KFC still competes with other chicken outfits and indeed with every other fast food outlet.

I must admit that patents are a bit of a gray area for me. Like Berend, I do believe they encourage investment. However if too easily gained and too general in their specs, they could well serve as a brake on innovation. I certainly don't go as far as Yacap. I do believe in intellectual property rights and believe they should be protected. Most property rights are protected in perpetuity. Most patents have fixed term. I think think is an acknowledgement of the less tangible nature and dynamism of ideas.

Protect specific concepts for an arbitrary period of time and let anarchy rule the rest. That sums up my view so far. Intersting debate.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer Trev. Ka Pai.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...

Yacap There are some very deep philosophical issues here.

I remember having a very similar email debate with Jim Peron on free Stuendts Network some time ago.

It was over defamation. I maintained you owned your reputation and could therefore sue if it was damaged.

Jim maintained that your reputation existed in other peoples minds and was therefore not your property.

I found the link you supplied very interesting, but still lean towards the Randian view. I was pretty dubious too of his view that property rights derive from scarcity. I think property rights derive from the nature of man and that property rights can be established over that which you have the ability to control.

Thanks for the link though, I will certainly study it further.

12:11 PM  

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