Saturday, May 1, 1999

IPR promotes knowledge and economic development

My article titled "IPR promotes knowledge and economic development" was published in the newsletter of the Liberty Institute in May 1999.

Over the past couple of years, the debate over Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) has increasingly become quite shrill. However, this seemed to have not enlarged the scope of the debate. The opponents have tried to portray IPR as a sell out to foreign interests, while the supporters of IPR reform keep repeating the necessity of IPR in the era of globalisation. However, the distinct advantages of having a good IPR regime, have rarely been highlighted.

IPR was first recognised in England in the 17th Century, just as the industrial revolution was beginning to have an impact. The aim was to protect the interests of the inventor, and thereby encourage the development of newer and better products so that the society benefits as a result.

Another critical component of IPR was that once the right was recognised, the new knowledge was open to public scrutiny. The inventor, knowing that his interest is protected, did not feel the need to cloak the invention in secrecy. This openness encouraged competitors and critics to scrutinise its weaknesses, and find ways of improving upon the existing products. This process has now established itself in what is known as peer reviewed publications, which have become the main vehicle of spread of knowledge in this information age.

Many countries that initially wanted to catch up with the industrial and economic leaders of their time had resorted to copying these products without regard for IPR. But as history has shown real scientific and technological progress has taken place only in countries that had finally accepted effective IPR laws. Germany and Japan are very good examples of this. On the other hand, the cost of rejecting IPR, whether on ideological grounds (as in the former socialist countries) or on pragmatic grounds in the hope of bringing immediate benefits to the people (as in India) are increasingly becoming obvious. It is not coincidence that even with one of the higest scientific and technical manpower, India has failed to develop the scientific temper and make her presence felt globally.

Two points must be taken in to account here. IPR is not a monopoly right granted by the government to the inventor. It is the recognition (just as all other political rights are) that since the invention may not have seen the light of the day without the genius of the inventor, therefore due credit should go to the latter. Secondly, the inventor can, of course, decide to keep his formula a secret in an attempt to protect his interest. But this would lead to a great waste of time and energy as others make the effort to reinvent the formula (or the wheel!). And the whole process may actually lead to the ultimate death of a special line of knowledge.

Experience of Ayurveda illustrates this point well rather tragically. It is not difficult to imagine that as knowledge of medicine in ancient times grew, physicians would have increasingly felt vulnerable due to lack of protection and recognition of their particular contribution to the development of knowledge in this field. So rather than participate in open debates and discussion of the progress being made, they increasingly sought to enclose themselves within the boundaries of their own school of thought. As time progressed, these physicians were only confident of passing down their knowledge on to their own family members and their own select pupils. It may not be very farfetched to say that as a result the practitioners felt no need to try and expand their knowledge base. The outcome was that in due course, the knowledge that was once a subject of open scrutiny, was turned in to a dogma. As a result a time came when even the practitioners did not retain the ways of validating their practice, and resorted to ritual. And it is only in recent years that some efforts are being made to revive the knowledge that has been lost. The cost has been enormous. The Liberty Institute is preparing a report on the impact of IPR on India, and other developing countries.

Clearly IPR has intellectual as well as practical advantages for every one. Today, more than ever before, economic advances are critically dependent upon progress in science and technology. An effective IPR, along with open competition and free trade (including exchange of ideas), are the only ways of ensuring an expanding knowledge base so essential to sustaining economic progress.

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