Both Samsung and Apple entered into a legal battle over patent infringement on three different continents back in April 2011. With such a short shelf-life of less than a year, if one company can obtain an injunction over the other, it will win simply by preventing its competitor from getting its product to the market. Moreover, millions of dollars are being shelled out on lawyers to fight each claim in the courts. In the end, by virtue of having fewer choices and presumably higher costs, it’s the consumer who ultimately pays.
This is not the original concept behind protections of intellectual products (IP). You’ll notice that I did not call it “intellectual property” because inventions and ideas are not “property,” although the likes of Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Merck and the rest of the hi-tech industry would like us to think so since “property” comes with natural rights. It also allows them to bandy around words like “piracy” and “theft.” I look at IP quite differently. It is a private tax on knowledge, and therefore the worse you can be accused of the next time you copy a CD or DVD is “tax avoidance,” which somehow doesn’t pack the same emotional or legal punch.
Laws to protect copyrights, patents and trademarks offend normal principles of the free market because they create protected monopolies, granting patent owners exclusive rights to sell their IP, usually well above the price that it would be able to charge in a competitive market.
The rationale for this artificial market is that it rewards inventors and creative people, as well as providing incentives for companies to invest in new technologies. This is valid—up to a point. But if the cost to the community exceeds the benefits, then creating artificial monopolies can no longer be justified. We are getting to that point now.
Companies have successfully lobbied to allow genes and even business methods to be patented. In other instances, minor changes are being patented to sabotage competitors. Applications are even being made to trademark colors. Soon, expect “Starbucks Green,” “Coke Red,” “Gap Blue,” and “T-Mobile Magenta” to be no-go colors to other manufacturers of consumer products.
In the case of copyrights, this was extended retrospectively so that the rights exist for 70 years after the death of the author. For centuries great writers have been turning out books without needing to know that feckless relatives will be rewarded for their efforts well after their own deaths. This is the so-called “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” which stemmed from successful lobbying by the Disney Corporation.
Interestingly, libertarians are joining with the left to attack the current IP regime. A very good book on the subject is Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, which, as you might expect, is available free off the internet.
As my contribution to the debate, I would like to draw the collective attention of the world’s hi-tech companies to Albert Robida, a French author who illustrated his science fiction novels with many inventions that we would find familiar today. They include a flat-screen television (the téléphonoscope), multi-channel cable TV, live telecasts from the front of distant wars, and, if you look carefully at the drawing at the top of this blog, you will see a man on a mountain top enjoying music from a device that looks remarkably like an iPod.
I’m sure that those hi-tech companies that currently hold patents for these inventions will happily hand them over to the feckless relatives of Monsieur Robida now that they realize that they have ripped off these devices from the original inventor.