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Intellectual Property

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I finished the first module of the distance learning course on intellectual property rights today and I thought I might put make a short write up of some of the take-aways. 

Intellectual property rights give the holders the exclusive rights through things like patents, trademarks, geographical indications, copyright, trade secrets and other undisclosed information.

The idea is to increase sharing of ideas and innovations, while protecting the rights of those who came up with them for specified amounts of time.  Without protections, most people either will not work very hard to come up with new things or they will try to keep their innovations a secret.   This is exactly what happened in times past and still happens in places where intellectual property protections are weak.   

The U.S. was an early leader in the specific protection of intellectual property.   It is written into the first article of our Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, and Clause 8) and it is one of the contributing factors to our nation’s rapid progress in the sciences and practical technologies.   Ben Franklin, a prolific inventor, was at the Constitutional Convention.    He invented (or perfected) bifocals, the lighting rod and the Franklin stove, among other things, but he refused to patent any of them, preferring to share them with all of mankind.  He had already made enough money by then and was devoting himself to public service.  However, he and others clearly saw that most inventors and innovators would not find themselves in Franklin’s happy condition or mindset.

The dual need to share and protect is reflected in patent law.   A patent give the holder the exclusive right to structures and methods that result from his idea, but only for a specific time and only on the condition that the inventor publicize the specifications.   Beyond that, the patent protects the physical manifestations, not the idea itself.

Copyright refers to the rights of authors and composers to control their work and it is under a lot of strain these days.    You have always been allowed “fair use”.  That means I can quote or take ideas from an author’s work if it is used as part of a new work and it not just copying the whole thing.   This worked well enough until it became easier to copy with Xerox and got even worse with the easy cut and paste or computers.  Now we have a whole new artistic/literary/musical genre of “mash-up.”  It is hard to tell where one work leaves off and another starts.  Beyond that, some artists don’t like their work to be altered.   The details of this are beyond my expertise (and frankly generally beyond my interest) but it makes a difference to some people.   Some countries give authors & artists the rights to control their work long after it has left their hands.   They often call these “moral rights.”  That was part of the controversy when Ted Turner wanted to colorize the classics.  I can see both sides in this case.  It is more fun to watch a movie in color and many of the kids will not even look at one in black and white.  But the techniques of color are different from those of black and white.   It may become a significantly different work when it is colorized.

Trademarks and trade secrets are a little different.  These things usually are not very profound, although they are the things most familiar to us.   You have the golden arches, Colonel Sanders’ face, or the unique way Coca-Cola is written.  They are meant only as a means to differentiate products.  The most famous trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola.    As much as l like the stuff, the world would not end if it was disclosed, but it would make it a lot harder to know I was getting something I liked to drink or some knockoff.   A trade secret can be held indefinitely. 

I have a little more trouble with geographical indications. The Europeans tend to be much more interested in those things than we are, maybe because they have a lot more geographical distinctions. Many of the foods that we call by ordinary names are actually geographical indications. Champagne or Bordeaux come from a specific place in France. Products from other places should not be called by those names. The same goes for Bologna, Prosciutto, Colby, Munster, Parmesan, or Romano cheese. Lots of things have names that indicate their original region.  Many have become generic and we hardly think of them anymore. But others have retained the geographical protection. That is why you might find something Parmesan or Champagne modified by style. 

A more recently important and even more confusing piece of “intellectual property” is folklore or customs. So far nobody has been able to properly define this, since folklore and customs tend to cross national and regional borders and it is probably impossible to identify the original sources.   I suppose the Greeks could try to get a cut each time someone mentions a Homeric Hero (e.g. Ajax cleanser) or even Homer Simpson. Of course, the original Homer probably lived in what is now Turkey.  Go back more than a couple generations and it all becomes the common heritage of mankind and that is why I don’t think much good will come of this aspect of intellectual property.

I have five more modules on this particular course.  I suppose they will get harder.


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