Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The beauty of ideas

"I believe that the single most important reason why prosperity spread, and why it continues to spread, is the transmission of technologies and the ideas underlying them. Even more important than having specific resources in the ground, such as coal, was the ability to use modern, science-based ideas to organize production. The beauty of ideas is that they can be used over and over again, without ever being depleted. Economists call ideas nonrival in the sense that one person's use of an idea does not diminish the ability of others to use it as well. This is why we can envision a world in which everybody achieves prosperity. The essence of the first Industrial Revolution was not the coal; it was how to use the coal. Even more generally, it was about how to use a new form of energy. The lessons of coal eventually became the basis for many other energy systems as well, from hydropower, oil and gas, and nuclear power to new forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar power converted to electricity. These lessons are available to all of humanity, not just for the first individuals who discovered them."
(Jeffrey Sachs, "The end of poverty", chapter "The spread of economic prosperity").

This reminds me of the lyrics of the song "Au temps des colonies" by Michel Sardou:
"Y'a pas d'café pas de coton pas d'essence
En France mais des idées ça on en a
Nous on pense"

More seriously, this is a strong argument against patents, which try to prevent people from using freely some people's ideas, a concept which I have never liked.


François said...

Yes, I totally agree with you and this is an extremely important subject. "Copyrighters" want to put "property" rights -to read excluding rights- to everything. This will endanger not only any artwork -when we will see the first trial in America from one artist to another, the first accusing the second of having used the same batch of colors than him?-, but also the capitalist mechanism which is a truly synthetic machine of ideas. If applied to its extreme, this movement will clog the blood stream of our open societies and will succeed to put capitalism below communism as another human failure.

Daniel said...

I agree the fact that Copyright and patent current models are no more suiting the increasing innovation rythm (both technology and arts)

Let's have a look to Creative Commons: an US alternative to Copyright (
Very interesting !

It is also intersting to look at history. Why and where patents were created: Do you know ?

The inner principle of patenting is very interesting:
If you don't grant benefit from invention, then you encourage secret. Patenting is giving free access to everyone to knowlegde. therefore it encourage innovation to develop an event greater idea that will turn initial one obsolete.
China kept secret the soil productin process during centuries ! Could it be acceptable today that new medecine treatement kept secret for years avoiding development of generics ?

It is a very powerfull and improved motor for innovation.

Today patenting is more and more complex. Too expensive which strongly limit everyone access to this tool. And betrayed in specific fields as biotechnology or software. That is why patent and copyright should evolve, not diseapear in my opinion.

Cedric said...

I like the Creative Commons concept, for example their "attribution" license, which "let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request", in their own words. This is basically the concept on which non-profit research is based, people can use or mention my findings if they cite my work. I think this could be expanded to commercial activities easily, if only because it is free advertising !

Now your remark on secret is interesting. If you don't get a benefit from inventing something and sharing it, then you will be inclined to keep it secret so that others cannot imitate you. And it would indeed be unacceptable that new medecine treatments could be kept secret for years avoiding development of generics. But the patents are doing exactly that ! Citing from Wikipedia: "In most cases, generic products are not available until the patent protections afforded to the original developer have expired [...] Drug patents give twenty years of protection, but they are applied for before clinical trials begin, so the effective life of a drug patent tends to be between seven and twelve years."
So imagine a new drug is discovered by a company to cure AIDS. It would take between seven to twelve or up to twenty years before generics can be made and the drug produced in sufficient quantities and at a reasonable price to cure the millions of people infected by HIV ! Do you find it acceptable ?

I understand that the company who develops a new drug wants to get back its investments on research and development and clinical tests, before other companies can use their recipe freely. Therefore I think that drug research should not be a private profit-oriented activity, but something financed by the community, the state, like fundamental research, with the only acceptable licenses such as the attribution license of Creative Commons.

Daniel said...

I agree the medical & genetic research is problematic with patent legislation

The same for computing. The Linux community is a very and unique example of human collaboration able to challenge world top company

So it should be possible to do the same with other domains such as health treatments

I am not sure that CC is the relevant model for health. Maybe GNU licence would be more appropriate...