Ownership of Ideas

James Kanter of International Herald Tribune reviews the importance of patents to modern business. ("A new battlefield: Ownership of ideas," IHT, October 3, 2005)

The real problem is how to fashion a system that promotes innovation, not mere accumulation. If savvy entrepreneurs can manipulate the system by locking down valuable ideas, true pioneers will find it too tough to win rewards for their inventions.

"Our standards-setting process risks being corrupted by having people filing for, and getting, any patents they want. That poses a real danger to the effectiveness of innovation," said Josh Lerner of Harvard Business School.

Dietmar Harhoff, a professor at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich and an expert in innovation research, said, "I think it has made some independent inventors less aggressive for fear of lawsuits."

Along these lines, it may be worth taking a look at Sun Microsystems' philosophy of sharing, and professor Lessig's Free Culture.

In the same issue of IHT, Brian Knowlton writes about how "U.S. plays it tough on copyright rules." My own personal view on all of this is that aggressive copyright protection and unduely long copyright extensions actually lead to an implicit form of censorship which can have severe consequences for cultural and technological innovation in the U.S. and other countries which adopt similar rules. Note that I'm not saying copyrights are bad or that there should be no ownership rights on intellectual property. I'm just concerned about the removal of all limits put on such rights.

[Kevin] Outterson suggested that neither governments nor corporations may be able to answer the key question dispassionately: "What is the limit to intellectual property rights?"

"No one in industry wants to ask, 'Where's the proper balance?"' he said. And yet economists acknowledge that "there must be a point at which intellectual property rights have gone too far."

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