Sunday, November 18, 2007

When public service actually mean something

The idea of patents and copyright is a relatively recent concept. While Charles II established the principle of registering books, it was actually Queen Anne I who gave us the modern idea of granting limited licenses to people for their creativity.

It's only fair and proper that if someone comes up with an invention they should reasonably profit from it -- the key word being reasonable. The same is true with novels, original journalism, plays and songs. But what if the concept or creation is so revolutionary, so important to public health or national security (and in some cases both) that the invention should rest in the public domain?

There are two major examples I can think of. The first is cell phones and Wi-Fi. Not many people realize that the code-hopping which underlies wireless technology today was co-invented by the actress Hedy Lamarr who was more than just a screen siren but also a brilliant mathematician; she and composer George Antheil submitted their patent application in June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor; and received their patent in August 1942. They promptly signed over the rights to the patent to the US Government. It was so ahead of its time that the US military couldn't use it until the early 1960s (and the first civilian cell phone as we now know them wasn't available until 1984).

Lamarr actually volunteered to join a think-tank that was charged with coming up with inventions to win the war but was instead told (notwithstanding her genius) her celebrity status could help raise money for war bonds -- and she did pretty good in that department too, raising millions in the Hollywood community.

When Lamarr was finally recognized for her work in 1997, it was pointed out to her that had she and Antheil held onto the patent and taken it to its logical conclusion they could have made well over $2 billion (over $20 billion in the equivalent in the 90s). Lamarr said no. There was a war going on and the United States needed all the help it could get.

Think about that. Duty first, self second. Whatever happened to that concept?

Last night, I browsed through some of the bonus materials in the DVD of Sicko, the Michael Moore film. One of the interviews was with Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and a policy analyst who is very critical of the drug industry and its knack for presenting "me too" drugs as "breakthrough" ones and thus being able to extend a patent on a drug by another twenty years (and thus, windfall profits too). She pointed out that most of the research on drugs is done not by Big Pharma but by the National Institutes of Health, one of the few functional agencies of the United States government.

She also noted Jonas Salk, the inventor of the injectable version of the polio vaccine. (Angell notes that she herself is a polio survivor.) Did he profit from a mostly middle class scourge? No. He made sure it was widely available. His attitude was, how could someone patent something that saved lives?

Contrast that with Albert Sabin, the Canadian who invented the competing vaccine, which is taken in oral form. He did make a huge profit out of it. But even then, he made sure that it was reasonably priced so Third World countries could afford it. True, both men competed against each other and probably even hated each other. But both men's shared civic mindedness made sure that polio is now so rare in the developed world that we don't even think about it -- and were it not for some African tribal leaders who think we're trying to poison them and their communities, as well as al-Qaeda, we actually could have abolished polio all together two years ago. (The target now is somewhere around 2015.) But note that Sabin got rich even though the vaccine was fairly priced.

Note also that even in countries with strict price regulation, Big Pharma thrives. One of the world's most prescribed anti-cholesterol drugs was invented and is manufactured in Dublin, Ireland. Why it then that the price for a thirty day supply in Canada is $13 US while in the States it is $169?

There was something poetic about what Marx and Engels wrote: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. That's something I am actually in agreement with them on, in principle.

It's the practice -- both in capitalist and communist countries -- that's the problem. And it's something that's been lost even in the limited amounts that used to exist. As we take another look at our copyright and patent laws this is something we need to think about, seriously.

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1 comment:

Catherine Roy said...

Great post ! And I had no idea Hedy Lamarr had contributed to wifi technology and wow, so ahead of her time. As for me, I support open source and Creative Commons and though I agree that people should be able to make a decent living with their ideas and stuff, I think the world would be better off if knowledge and science were freely shared.