Fwd: Patent lies- George Monbiot
Krishna E. Bera
keb at cyblings.on.ca
Tue Apr 9 17:51:13 EDT 2002
Lest the notion go unchallenged, that
a monopoly on the use of a particular piece of knowledge
is required to spur introduction of new technologies,
here is a little history.
Imo, this kind of "protection" does nothing useful at all
except provide job security for lawyers and bullies,
i.e. it is racketeering.
Yes, patents are different from copyrights, but
the same baseless arguments are often used to justify them.
If they are applied with the original purpose kept in focus
they just might achieve that purpose, or on the other hand
they might simply have been a bad idea in the first place.
Outlook / Patent nonsense from the rich world's corporate giants
The most surprising aspect of the steel war launched by the United States is
that anyone is surprised. For all the talk of increasing freedom, the only
consistent trend in global trade rules over the past 10 years has been the
The rich nations have repeatedly promised to phase out agricultural subsidies
and remove the tariffs on textiles imported from the poor world, but those
promises have been broken. Instead they have battened down the hatches by
granting to the corporations they shelter new laws defending "intellectual
At the world trade talks last November, the poor nations appeared to win
ground. They would be allowed to continue to import cheap copies of the
patented drugs required to fight epidemics. But there was a catch. While
nations will be permitted to buy these drugs, by 2005 the countries
manufacturing them will be forbidden to sell them; the rules defending
public health won't be worth the paper they're written on.
New global trade rules have also allowed big corporations to patent crop
varieties and, in effect, the genes of plants, animals and human beings. The
corporations argue that this new protectionism is essential to stimulate
innovation and investment. There are many ways in which this claim could be
challenged, but I may have stumbled across a fascinating one contained within
the histories of the very companies which now insist that intellectual
property rights are the prerequisites of development.
In Industrialisation Without National Patents, published in 1971, the
economic historian Eric Schiff says some of Europe's biggest corporations
came into being in Switzerland and the Netherlands in the period (1850-1907
in Switzerland; 1869-1912 in the Netherlands) in which neither country
recognised patents. Some appear to owe their very existence to this
exemption. In both nations this situation appears to have contributed
to massive economic growth and innovation.
Switzerland was a poor country, but in 1859 a small company based in Basel
"borrowed" the aniline dying process patented in Britain two years earlier.
The company, Ciba, swiftly outstripped firms in Britain. In 1995 Ciba merged
with another Swiss firm, Sandoz, to form Novartis. Novartis was one of the
companies that successfully lobbied for the European convention allowing
companies to patent genes. It was also one of the firms that fought the South
African government's attempt to buy cheap copies of its patented drugs to
treat HIV patients. Now, having merged with Zeneca to form an even bigger
company, Syngenta, it is extending its intellectual property rights still
further by developing seeds that don't reproduce.
But Switzerland's growth during this period did not rely solely upon
purloining other nations' patented processes. In 1875 Daniel Peter invented
milk chocolate. In 1879 Rudolf Lindt developed chocolat fondant. In
1886 Julius Maggi invented powdered soup. Later he developed stock cubes.
In 1865 Henri Nestlé developed a cereal for children. In 1998 the
International Chamber of Commerce lobbied the World Trade Organisation in
support of corporate rights over plants, animals and genes. It argued that
"the protection of intellectual property" is "essential for economic growth".
Its chairman was Helmut Maucher, also the chief executive of Nestlé, which
conquered the world without any intellectual property protection whatever.
In the Netherlands too, the absence of patents appears to have done little to
arrest the growth of industry. In the early 1870s two companies, Jurgens and
Van den Bergh, commandeered a patented French recipe and created margarine.
Jurgens and Van den Bergh later merged with a British firm to form Unilever.
Like Novartis and Nestlé, Unilever is one of the most influential members of
Europabio, the lobby group now pressing for ever stricter patent protections
for big corporations.
Switzerland and the Netherlands adopted patent laws in response to threats
from other nations. This, Schiff argues, was a political decision, not an
economic one. It is "difficult to avoid the impression" that the absence of
patent laws "furthered, rather than hampered development".
These examples indicate that in the right circumstances the abandonment of
patent protection can be an effective tool. But this tool has been denied to
Those who have challenged the inequalities of global trade have pointed out
that some of the richest nations once used tariff barriers to build their
economies. But the history of patent protection suggests that that is not the
only means by which the rich nations have raised the drawbridge after
entering the castle. When it suits the rich countries to impose free trade,
they do so. When it suits them to impose protectionism, they argue that this
is the only path to development. But woe betide the poor nation that seeks to
apply the lessons of the past.
The Guardian Weekly 11-4-2002, page 20
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