IPR & Knowledge Dissemination

IP rights confer upon the creator/inventor or a work/invention the right to exploit and gain from it. This right is a restrictive right which essentially gives rise to a monopoly.

Given that there is a global consensus that most monopolies are bad, why does the IPR system create and mandate a monopoly, you ask? Read on.

Knowledge is power

Businesses make money bridging the gap between demand and supply. Businesses evolved overtime to place ever increasing dependence on technology. They realized that there was money to be made from the exploitation of scientific knowledge and that the control of its flow could have far reaching impacts on the economic and socio-political aspects of human life.

It was in the commercial interest of those who possessed this knowledge to deprive competitors of it in a bid to gain an advantage. This gave rise to an age where scientific and technical information was closely guarded, and in case of Joseph von Fraunhofer, guarded by the full force of the state machinery.

His is a story which illustrates the commercial significance of scientific knowledge as well as the consequences of curtailing its dissemination.

Joseph von Fraunhofer, an 18th century Bavarian (present day Germany) optician credited with the discovery of spectral lines and the invention of the spectroscope. The invention of the spectroscope was a genesis of a whole branch of science referred to as Spectrometry which laid the foundation of modern astrophysics.

Orphaned at 11, he began his journey into the scientific world as an apprentice in a glass makers workshop. With support from the Prince of Bavaria – Maximilian, he moved to a monastery devoted to glass making. There he learnt all that there was and soon made a name for himself in the field of optics.

He invented various ways of improving optical precision. He is credited to have single-handedly raised Bavaria to the heights of glass trade. Trade flourished in Bavaria and it moved from being an underdeveloped suburban area to beating Britain in international glass trade. Stalwarts like Michael Faraday are said to have tried and failed to match Fraunhoffers high standards in Optics.

Much of Fraunhoffers work was closely guarded and secretive. High level security clearances were required to have access to his research. Bavaria declared his inventions and all know-how as a State Secret in a bid to retain its dominant position in international trade.

Fraunhofer died at the age of 39 as a consequence of heavy metal poisoning from his days as an apprentice at the workshop. The Bavarian government scrambled to extract and preserve as much information about glass making as they could when he was on his death bed. All that could not be recovered was lost forever!

The problem with the loss is that the society has to reinvest resources in perfecting lost techniques all over again.

IPR and Knowledge Dissemination

It is against this backdrop that the global IPR system provides for a compulsory publication of the work (copyright) or technical details of the invention (patent) being sought protection for, and the IP rights are enforceable from the date of publication and not the date of application!

This is a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby the creator of a work or an inventor of a technology is granted a limited monopoly right in exchange of a complete disclosure of the underlying work or invention, thus striking a balance between the right of the creator/inventor to benefit from his work/invention and the need to enable information dissemination throughout the world.