Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Owning the Idea of Tree Frog Venom

Solveig Singleton accidentally makes a very strong argument against patent rights in an article critical of actions taken by the Brazilian government to protect the knowledge of indigenous tribes and their discoveries of the many uses of tree frog poisons:
But a claim that indigenous people's or their representative governments "own" the venom of a tree frog, medicinal or otherwise, simply by virtue of having discovered it...? Well, it sounds like patenting a law of nature to me.
To which we say, "exactly." All inventions are discoveries. Does the act of discovering a new fact, idea, or combination of components cause the discoverer to own that fact, idea, or combination, and give them the right to exclude all others from practicing any similar idea? Does it give the holder of patents covering these ideas the right to a complete monopoly over entire industrial sub-sectors? According to our patent system, yes and yes.

Solveig continues:
Would these same discoverers share the risk and blame if the product were somewhere downstream, found to cause birth defects or other harm?
Would the "discoverers" of wireless email (NTP) share the risk and blame if the BlackBerry network went down, or if BlackBerrys were found to cause birth defects or other harm? The answer, of course, is no. Patent trolls are completely decoupled from any responsibility whatsoever, other than the duty they have to spend money on lawyers and extort outrageous fees from 'infringers' through abuse of our legal system. I'm not sure why Solveig brings this point up, unless she's of the same opinion that we are -- namely, that any system which assigns exclusive ownership of discoveries and ideas to only one party (such as our patent system) is inherently absurd. She continues in this vein:
Would they also desire to share in the profits from sales of coffee, tea, and chocolate, claiming to have discovered their property of tastiness? What about the properties of coca leaves and opium poppies? Would they like to share in the profits from the development of those products into painkillers? Would they also like to share in the profits from the sales of heroin and cocaine? What about crack?
Of course, maybe Ms. Singleton hasn't heard of Peruvian patents on potatoes or Indian patents on basmati rice? Or perhaps she hasn't examined the tags of just about any plant, shrub, or tree purchased at a nursery in this country lately, which warn the purchaser that breeding or germinating the plant is in strict violation of the "intellectual property rights" of the grower? Surely Ms. Singleton must be aware of the many 'rights' that companies such as Monsanto exercise, such as the right to sue farmers when Monsanto's seeds blow into their fields.

But the point is this: if patents give exclusive property rights to discoverers of new medicines and technologies, what argument could there possibly be against giving those same rights to the discoverers of tree frog venom? In both cases, some labor and inventiveness was spent to make the discovery. In both cases, something new and innovative resulted.

Perhaps the distinction is that the tribes in the Brazilian Rain Forest didn't know about the patent system when they made their discovery, and therefore didn't anticipate receiving such rights? But then, whoops! -- that would be an admission that discoveries and invention can occur without a patent system in place.

Or maybe the tribes don't deserve this economic benefit because they are primitive, and only 1st world discoverers (i.e., ones that are literate and that wear lab coats instead of loin clothes) deserve patent protection? But then, whoops! -- we shouldn't be foisting strong patent protection systems upon the third world and claiming that this will benefit those countries when the truth is that it mostly benefits us and our large, corporate patent-holding interests.

Ms. Singleton concludes:
Leave it to some of the loudest critics of patents to come up with the broadest theory of ownership yet, most resembling a feudal entitlement.
Wrong, Ms. Singleton. It was proponents of "strong" patent "rights" who have created a system in which such absurdities abound. And it doesn't appear, from the NYTimes article, that the 'loudest critics of patents' are the ones coming up with this tree frog poison protectionist scheme. On the contrary, it was Tribal Chief Fernando Katukina, who appears to be using the simple self-interest of his tribe as his motivator. He should at least be commended for his cleverness in exposing patent systems for what they really are: an artificial scheme to take wealth from one party and give it arbitrarily to another.

All this complaining by IP-maximalists when foreign nations figure out how to use our patent regime against itself only illustrates the true motives of creating these corrupt systems in the first place: to fortify exactly those feudal and aristocratic societies which Ms. Singleton claims to oppose, where status and wealth is determined only be which patent-owning 'family' you belong to.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From venom patent I wonder if the holder of that patent is the "Almighty one" if not he shouldbe Cars N Automobiles

12:36 PM  
Blogger Charity cds said...

Your article reminded me of issues that Wade Davis raised in relation to pharmaceutical companies trying to patent medicines that originate from the natural remedies employed by the Amazon indians. I can see how the government may be trying to do this to protect their heritage and customs, but it does seem ethically wrong.


1:36 PM  
Anonymous Martin Wise said...

Issuing patents to companies that really do not need to have them is in my opinion a waste of time, if as you say a company patents something like voip or even homebase garden furniture are they then responsible for any injuries in the future of those products or systems that they pass on to others, if they want the patent so badly then I say yes they should be ready to be liable for any future problems even if under licience.

2:39 AM  
OpenID rent-a-website said...

Ethics always have very little sway when the finances of multi national drug companies gets involved.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous William Stay said...

Patents cannot be attached to nature or anything that is derived from a natural source, ref: 'if patents give exclusive property rights to discoverers of new medicines and technologies,' if new medicines are created in a lab then yes if the technologies such as say argos lcd tv then maybe but if the source is nature a patent should not be allowed, no invention has been made, there are so many natural cures in the forests and other animals if a cure for cold was found from a protien from a crocodile could you patent the crocodile of course not, the patent laws need a reset, but it seems political power and money makes a difference.

9:13 AM  

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