Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Intellectual property and genes

More on intellectual property:

Advocates of tough intellectual property rights say that this is simply the price we have to pay to get the innovation that, in the long run, will save lives. It’s a trade-off: the lives of a relatively few poor women today, versus the lives of many more women sometime in the future. But this claim is wrong in many ways. In this particular case, it is especially wrong, because the two genes would likely have been isolated (“discovered,” in Myriad’s terminology) soon anyway, as part of the global Human Genome Project. But it is wrong on other counts, as well. Genetic researchers have argued that the patent actually prevented the development of better tests, and so interfered with the advancement of science. All knowledge is based on prior knowledge, and by making prior knowledge less available, innovation is impeded. Myriad’s own discovery — like any in science — used technologies and ideas that were developed by others. Had that prior knowledge not been publicly available, Myriad could not have done what it did.

I think that this is one of the themes of intellectual property arguments; the advocates claim that the huge positional benefits of these policies (in generating revenue for incumbents) are necessary to encourage progress.  But it makes all sorts of tough assumptions, like incumbents will deploy these resources to encourage social benefit. 

One thing that makes a lot of sense is to look at times and places that showed evidence for fast growth and innovation.  It seems that tight trade guild rules, for example, seem to be anti-correlated with fast progress on industrial or technological progress.  That should be a cautionary note.

And, as Mark has carefully noted before, there isn't a binary choice here between massive intellectual property protection and no intellectual property protection.  There are some pretty reasonable middle ground positions that are less extreme than the modern regime but still protect the rights of private discovery.  Nor should we entirely rule out government funded research programs -- these can be much less expensive than the private sector (see the NSF, for example) but still ensure that innovation is not under-supplied. 

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