One of the demands the LDCs are making in Copenhagen is the transfer of low-carbon technology. They have a point. The core inventions of the fossil fuel age – internal combustion engines, steam turbines, oil wells and so on – are a hundred years old; coal mining, much more than that. If you want the state of the art in these technologies, of course you will have to license patents. But the IP rent is severely constrained by the facts that you can build a perfectly good coal power station using the technology of 1989 without paying a cent, and that the current patents cover incremental improvements for which there are often effective alternatives. In effect, there’s competition between IP holders.
Not so for renewable technologies, which are younger snd therefore more in the patent window. Obama is betting $2.4 billion of US taxpayer money on batteries; this is intended to create a US dominance of the IP. Mass deployment of solar PV also depends critically on future patentable improvements. So it’s reasonable for poor and middle-income countries to worry a lot about IP rentals and dependence.
Welcome to the world of qatents [originally mistyped qu-, see comment 1]. My coinage: qatent is to patent as copyleft is to copyright. It denotes a patentable invention wholly or partly in the public domain. The Latin converse of patent is latent; but this has a meaning already, and quite the opposite of what we want. Qatent is a typographical pun: the lower-case letter q is the mirror-image of p, a symmetry which should appeal to Steven Chu.
The patent system isn’t a battlefield like copyright, with extremists on both sides dismantling Queen Anne’s sensible compromise: Disney’s and Bono’s “copyright is for ever” vs. the hackers’ “information shall be free”. I’ve no idea whether the 20 years life of patents is optimal, rather than 15 or 25, but it’s stable and workable. At first sight, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
But though the situation is not disastrous, the patent system has problems. International inequality is one; another is the inefficiency of the patent model in producing new drugs. A third is illustrated by this New Scientist report (paywall). Summary:
The British defence technology company Qinetiq have patented a scheme to block viruses in email attachments by inserting machine code in the header that intercepts any hidden executables. Ross Anderson, a software security engineer at the University of Cambridge, thinks the idea promising but raises a snag:
Now that Qinetiq have patented this idea nobody will use it, even if it works. Patents are seen as damage: people route around them.
Big technology companies like Qinetiq routinely patent lots of stuff not so much to market it in products but defensively, against rival companies. Sue me for patent infringement, and I’ll sue you. But this arms race can have a chilling effect on third parties, and slows down innovation.
One great benefit of the copyright wars has been the emergence of the copyleft movement. We don’t just have new legal forms for placing copyright in the public domain (the Creative Commons and GNU licenses), but a growing cultural recognition that the public domain is immensely valuable, that enriching it is a public-spirited act, and that it should be safeguarded and spread.
Qatents already have a simple legal form for donation to the public domain: you just publish your idea on the web, and it’s prior art that blocks a rival from patenting (if the patent office hears of it). I guess there’s scope for better intermediate forms, as with the Creative Commons partial licenses and GNU, that allow you to make a text or program free for non-profit use but not for commercial.
More important is the cultural recognition, for which a name is essential. We also need better institutions for dissemination: qatents are orphans and need altruistic guardians. Patent offices are already custodians of those qatents that are expired patents, but there’s a whole mass of technical knowledge out there that has never been patented – think of ethnobotany, or (advt.) my own clever idea here. This disorganised corpus needs to be made more searchable.
Let’s set up a Qatent Office as custodian of free technical knowledge.