December 18th, 2009

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.

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8 Responses to “The Qatent Office”

  1. J says:

    “Welcome to the world of quatents. My coinage: qatent is to patent as [...]”

    Lexicography fail. If you yourself can’t keep straight whether it’s supposed to be “quatent” or “qatent”, nobody else will be able to, either.

    Then there’s the question of pronunciation – how the heck do you want English speakers to form that initial u-less q? Is is a glottal or uvular stop, as in Arabic? Or are we supposed to say “katent” or “kwatent”? Or perhaps “chatent” (following the use of q in Pinyin)?

    Don’t take this personally, but you’ve hobbled a perfectly good concept with a perfectly horrible word. Maybe wait a few weeks and re-launch the idea with a different name? Otherwise, whenever the subject comes up, what people will remember is “that crazy unpronounceable word” rather than “that nifty idea”.

  2. Blake says:

    There is at least one other huge huge problem with the current patent system beyond those listed in the article. The very concept of software, business process and genome related patents is ridiculous.

  3. James Wimberley says:

    J: thanks for the typo pickup, I’ve corrected. The pun works better I think without the u; though the pronunciation must of course be parallel. Qinetiq have shown the way! Though they pronounce “kinetic.” I’m happy to let the market decide.

    Blake: right. A friend of mine, Mike Spedding, chief pharmacologist to a big French company, has been trying to draw a line around cell receptors – which should be in the public domain – and the chemicals that lock on to them, which should be patentable. There’s already a public-domain database. For now, I’m only suggesting that the arguments on such matters will go better if there’s a good vocabulary.

  4. paul says:

    The big thing a Qatent Office could do is to make sure that the prior art is available to patent offices and is properly taken into account. As things stand now, it’s mostly the applicant’s responsibility to fess up to relevant prior art, and only if the patent is challenged (in extremely expensive and uncertain litigation) do others get to chime in. (And there’s no penalty, other than not getting the patent, for submitting a defective application or one that gets overturned on re-examination.)

  5. Joe S. says:

    Patents are not as controversial as copyright, but they are controversial. The consensus among policy types is narrow: the pharmaceutical system as we know it today couldn’t exist without patents. There are many supporters of patents for other inventions, but also many opponents. Both offer good arguments based on empirical evidence and rational economics. The opponents of patents further argue that there are other ways to structure the pharmaceutical development system.
    That all being said, I can’t see any problems with a qatent office. Patent offices have their own registries of prior art, but there is much to be said for open-source competition. There are a few practical problem: indexing, quality control, incentives. But it just might work, either on a standalone basis, or as a kind of indexing system appended to Wikipedia.

  6. Dennis says:

    Ummm, if the Federal Gov’t is going into battery research in a big way, aren’t the patents generated automagically in the Public Domain? Or have the Republic’s figured out a way around that bedrock principle too?

  7. paul says:

    Oh, Dennis…

    It’s easy. The federal government doesn’t actually do the research. It funds it through grants and contracts, and “public/private partnerships” and various other mechanisms. And somehow the contracts get written so that the stuff that’s patentable “belongs” to whatever private entity is involved. Often by having the feds fund everything through proof-of-concept, and then leaving the private side to created patentable solutions to all the gotchas that stand between the proof of concept and large-scale production.

  8. Mark says:

    This idea has been suggested over the years as a way for indigenous people to protect their traditional knowledge from other people’s patents. The problem is that the only advantage, really, is that you don’t have to incur the expense of patenting, given that if you get a patent you can always license to anyone or everyone, or even abandon the patent to the public. And there are disadvantages. For one thing, inventions often cost more to create than do copyrighted works, so getting one’s money back is a bigger deal. (That’s probably why the idea was raised more in the traditional-knowledge context, where return on investment is not the primary goal.) And the patent-as-bargaining-chip you mention is important in some industries, mostly those related to computers. Unless everyone agrees to eschew patents, everyone needs his bargaining chips. And of course if everyone agrees, that would be an antitrust violation.