Patents: from bad to worse.

A market economy has one prime necessity: clear ownership rights, which means everything has to be owned by somebody. There is this interesting thing called Intellectual Property , which means essentially anything that you can dream up. Since what you dream up obviously is ‘owned’ by you, tell the appropriate athorities that no one has ever dreamt up such a thing, and you get IP rights over your dream. Sounds pretty clean, at least in theory. Copyright is one of the most famous of the IP rights, patents being another.

IP rights encourage innovation, enabling the inventor to make money out of his/her invention which gives them necessary incentive. But like any honest-to-goodness theory, IP gets abused, even more so since people can make money out of them. Ask the people who work in companies that file a lot of patents, and you’ll hear amusing stories about the extent of triviality that certain patents go to. At another point in the spectrum, you’ll find the basmati turmeric patenting opportunists whose only claim to intellectual property is knowledge of patent laws in the US. The US Patent and Trademark Office is notorious for handing out the wierdest and most mind-numbing patents that ever existed. Today’s news tells us about a company that patented ‘ a mobile phone with removable storage, internet connection,  camera and the ability to download audio and video files’. Sound familiar ? Apparently they did not waste much time and went about suing Apple, Nokia, RIM, Sprint, AT&T, HP, Motorola, Helio, HTC, Sony Ericsson, UTStarcomm, Samsung and a bunch of others. It is not just fly-by-night operators who do such innovative arrogation of property. Amazon’s infamous one-click patent is another example.

Worse examples are that of biotechnology companies, which patent genome data, especially genes which seem to do interesting things. The question of property here is no longer clear-cut: should the data belong to the one from whom the DNA was extracted, or to those who made it known to the world. Should such information be one person’s/firm’s property ? Can it be someone’s property ? Radio spectrum is somehow said to be the property of the State and it has the exclusive right to auction it. This means that whoever transmits in a frequency that has been ‘sold’ is trespassing private property!

Things become murkier in the pharma industry. Drug discovery is a very expensive process, and companies simply cannot afford to make an ‘unmarketable’ drug. The freakonomics blog has a post on the politics of drug discovery and promotion, and from where pharma companies make their money. Hollywood movies tell us how pre-nuptials are a good earning for ‘professional’ spouses.

The ‘I, me, mine, mine, mine!’ culture is fast catching on in India as well, where traditional ownership forms were collective instead of individual. This may be an excellent way of stimulating economic growth, but the question to ask is at what cost. American families are forced to be self-sufficient in everything, from transport to plumbing. Every member of the family has to have a TV in their room, individual computers, essentially everything has to be duplicated for every member of the house. One TV implies friction between family members, so get everyone their own is missing the point entirely. It weakens bonds, reduces individual responsibility to the society and even to their families. This attitude naturally leads to consumerism whose effects are well documented in The story of stuff. Sharing is an important cultural trait that India is fast losing, in lieu of ‘progress’. The notion of private property in India is as recent as Lord Clive and the Bengal settlement. Within this short timeframe, there have emerged pockets where enquiring about your neighbor’s well-being is considered intrusion of (my) privacy.

India faces worse issues, since the administrative machinery in the West is far more developed and less corruptible when compared to our babudom. Following the effects of the spread of non-collective forms of ownership into the most remote parts of India will be as interesting as excruciating.

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