What Innovation, Patent Laws and the Open Source Culture mean for the Developing World

map GDP

(source: World Mapper under Creative Commons license)

Now compare that map with this one:

(source: World Mapper under Creative Commons license)

That's the map of patents granted globally. One cannot help but notice how similar these maps are.
However, the correlation between patent granted and economic development remains unclear. It is the typical "Chicken or the Egg" question. My colleague Ian argues that patent laws come to fruition only after development is well underway. Similarly, Bessen and Meuler posit that the evidence so far suggest that "intellectual property rights appear to have at best only a weak and indirect relationship to economic growth". Many in the least developed nations believe that not only patent laws are an impediment to innovation and a fair competitive for developers and entrepreneurs from the third world. In other cases, the stakes for the public interest are a little higher. For instance, patent laws were an intense battleground in the fight for providing access to antiretroviral drugs to HIV patients in sub Saharan Africa. The argument for less stringent patent regulations as stated at the open source initiative is that open source: "harnesses the power of distributed peer review and the transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in."
The overarching idea is that, if developers from LDCs were allowed to build on existing products and innovate in ways that existing products can be tailored for the needs and the context of their regions, everybody could benefit from the added value, provided that the original creators were credited appropriately for the original product.
An oft-mentioned article in the New York Times wondered whether the next Palo Alto might spring out of Nairobi, Kenya. (A new innovation venture called ihub based in Nairobi, surely works towards making the NYT's prediction a palatable possibility). Google's Eric Schmidt is quoted in the article as saying:

" Africa is a huge long-term market for us, We have to start by helping people get online, and the creativity of the people will take care of the rest".

The argument that patent laws are indeed hurting innovation worldwide is further developed by Professor Michael Heller who argues that “When too many people own pieces of one thing, nobody can use it.” Too much ownership in a society causes gridlock - the gridlock economy - and cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears, and everyone loses."
From the perspective of a developing country, a lot of the technological advances in information technology that are currently not fit for their needs could mean the difference between having a failed health care system and tending to the needs of their most vulnerable communities. For instance, medical records that would be made available via simple text messages could alleviate the severe shortage of health care workers and health centers in general by allowing care givers instant access and communication with patients in remote area. For that to happen, some technological advances need to be made available easily and customized ( language etc..) by local developers. Of course information technology is not the be all and end all measure that will solve development challenges, there are clear danger in the technological utopia that internet sometimes leads to. However, in the specific instances were a win-win solution can be had thanks to technological advances, a culture of shared common knowledge can foster innovation that may have not been possible in a culture of strict intellectual property protection.
The Creative Commons initiative (one that allows me to post the world mapper images above without being sued) aims to foster innovation by providing a legal framework for innovators to build upon existing works.
The patent law debate in IT certainly merits a closer attention from both engineers, law and policy makers. No one wish to curtail the commercial dynamism of for-profit ventures. In fact, it seems that the success of a product could be measured by how other developers are willing to built upon the original idea and improve its overall capability, without any additional investment. One would hope that innovators can parlay a vote of confidence by other developers into a successful business model.

1 comment:

  1. Can I make a suggestion? I believe youve received one thing good here. However what if you added a couple links to a page that backs up what youre saying? Or perhaps you might give us something to look at, something that would join what youre saying to something tangible? Only a suggestion. Anyway, in my language, there will not be a lot good source like this.