Posted by Richard Wilder
Associate General Counsel, IP Policy
Sure, a lot of acrimony often accompanies the discussion of IP issues. Current conventional wisdom teaches that intellectual property is all about exclusion, while warm and fuzzy terms like “sharing,” “free” and “open” have – in many contexts – become associated with unrestricted access and hostility toward IP.
Yet this modern narrative, casting IP as a barrier to sharing, ignores history and the role that IP actually plays. Before IP, people used a variety of means to secure the benefits of innovation and creativity, including force, government-granted trade monopolies, and secrecy. Aspects of all three were combined, some argue, in medieval Europe’s guild system, which obsessively imposed secrecy to prevent dissemination of industrial knowledge outside the guild, while also making competition with the guild illegal, just for extra protection.
In part, modern patent systems were adopted to weaken incentives toward trade secrecy by offering limited legal protection to inventors, but only if they publicly disclosed both the invention and how it works.
The choice has never been between IP and freedom or between IP and openness. While IP certainly isn’t a panacea, at least it enables relative openness and sharing by creating incentives for the disclosure and dissemination of technology. In doing so, it provides a legal framework within which companies and individuals can collaborate more efficiently and pursue their collective goals. IP also provides an international framework that reduces both the cost and the risk of technology transfer.
To paraphrase Churchill’s famous characterization of democracy, IP is perhaps the worst mechanism for driving open innovation and economic development except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. In the words of Francis Gurry, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO):
Innovative technologies are creating a truly global society. The intellectual property system is part of this linking process. It facilitates the sharing of information – such as the wealth of technological know-how contained in WIPO’s free data banks. It provides a framework for trading and disseminating technologies. It offers incentives to innovate and compete. It helps structure the collaboration needed to meet the daunting global challenges, such as climate change and spiraling energy needs, confronting us all.
So, do celebrate World Intellectual Property Day. Maybe even have a hot dog.