Friday, May 20, 2011

Engineer, Teacher and Lawyer

Among our professors, Prof. Tom was quite unlike others. He was very well built, handsome, young, well dressed, well spoken, full of life, carried a brilliant smile and.....was European! In the campus, we were all special because of him - we were the privileged ones from a developing nation who had a visiting professor from a reputed European university showing the ropes.

Our first introduction to Prof. Tom (not his real name) was at the beginning our second semester-he would teach us Engineering Drawing. He came across as an extremely friendly but an equally strict and disciplined teacher during class hours. He would close the doors of the classroom precisely ten minutes after the scheduled start of the class (anyone who came later would have the misfortune of missing his lecture altogether and losing the attendance), his assignments were always due on time, his classroom drills were tuned to perfection, he kept the students engaged and on their toes and he never compromised. But outside the class, he would be just another man - you could invite him over to the hostel for a meal (and we used to call him over whenever our hostel mess had Biriyani for dinner - which he seemed to enjoy immensely), he would not mind coming in for any "officially sanctioned" booze parties and would never shy away from discussing girls (though he always kept it dignified compared to the teenagers that we were).

He sure had a special place in my heart and so, many years later, I was curious how he was doing. Europe had undergone profound changes by then - the old communist totalitarian regimes had collapsed and the near monolithic (economically, if not politically) European Union had come into being. Skilled labourers and well educated professionals could now move without barriers within the union, including ones from erstwhile communist nations. This created a glut of human resources within rich Europe and huge commercial opportunities within the poor ones. I was, therefore, interested to know how he positioned himself during this period of economic churn - whether he benefited from it, stayed pat or lost out.

So I sat down in front of my computer on one of those lazy afternoons and typed his name into the heavenly Google search box. At the time, only a few results were returned and only one of them had a perfect match for his first and last names. It turned out to be the web site of one of the law firms and I was pretty much about to disregard it before I decided to casually click his name from among the list of lawyers. I was simply astounded to see his picture and his job description - he had by then become a "patent attorney"!

That surely boggled my mind. If you look at a survey of the most respected professions in any country, the teacher would be rated among the highest and an engineer wouldn't be much further behind. So, if I were to extrapolate, an engineering teacher would surely be a very highly respected person. By comparison a lawyer (that too an "intellectual property lawyer") would be one of the lowest in the totem pole - possibly only a little less disliked than a politician. Why on earth would he chose to be a lawyer in his middle age? Of course I can understand the privilege and money that comes with it, but what is it about engineering that he found so dispensable that he would spend time and money to re-qualify as a lawyer?

I decided to ask. I sent him an email in his law firm's email address. He responded promptly and warmly. He explained how the European Union had affected the prospects of universities that were in close proximity to each other and why he decided to get into an alternate career. He had to go through a tough European Qualifying Exam in which only 10% passed at the first attempt. He seemed happy with his new profession and he ended his note by saying that his firm handles "everything to do with Intellectual Property - including licensing, litigation and prosecution".

Ominous, isn't it!

In subsequent emails he explained how he goes about enforcing his clients' intellectual property rights in the big bad world out there. In addition to going through every patent filing that ever was, he would often go to trade and tech expos. The main intention of going there, obviously, is to make sure that none of exhibits are potentially using, wholly or partly, any of his clients' intellectual property. If one has the faintest idea about what kind of silly things can be patented and how broad the interpretations can be, one would realise how years worth of hard work and innovation can be destroyed with a single strike of an attorney's pen.

The one thing that separates humans from other living beings on earth is the ability to accumulate knowledge and by extension the ability to share and improve upon each other's ideas. It is this unique ability that has enabled them to travel right up to the top of the food chain despite their obvious physical and sensory limitations. We would not have had societies, governments, religions, inventions and the infinitely networked modern conveniences without our ability to create and share ideas. So who, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it is appropriate to colonise ideas, which is essentially what the administration of "intellectual property" about?

Therein, lies the point. Men always had the propensity to colonise, ever since they started living in social groups. Man's uncanny ability to communicate, co-operate and congregate did not exactly teach him to co-exist and share knowledge for the benefit of each other. Instead it enabled a manipulative few to colonise resources, assert dominance over people and engineer the behaviour of societies for many generations. Formation of nations (ruled by dictators, of course), creation of feudal societies, the class/caste system, slavery, wars and imperial conquests are all historical testaments to the propensity of the human elite to colonize. Even religions and social order were designed in a way that would perpetuate the existence of elitism as a right. The origins of intellectual property rights can also be traced to this manipulative behaviour.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the elite probably realised that physical colonisation land also came with risks and responsibilities associated with having to manage people living in the territory. Then came the brilliant idea of the "free market economy" wherein it was possible to colonise markets and be bothered only about "consumers" without having to be bothered about the welfare of the people living in the market territory or its environmental well-being. Political systems were re-crafted in a way that would retain the control of market by the elite, give an outward impression that the "electorate" is responsible for the fortunes and misfortunes of people, and the executive would have sufficient might to suppress dissent outside the framework of "the law". Initially, this market colonisation meant that the producers of industrial goods had an infinite advantage over those who could not produce goods for the marketplace. With the advent of manufacturing sweatshops across Asia and Latin America, the notion of idea as a property became a simpler and more potent colonisation tool - in that anyone who has skill and the means to produce, has to first pay a tribute to the person who "owns the idea".

Commodification of knowledge inevitably resulted in patent raiders attempting to corral readily available “undefended” traditional knowledge and non-commercialised inventions. Attempts to patent turmeric and Basmati rice elucidate the dark side of patent administration and the intentions of transnational corporations. Just as ominous are the efforts to usurp the intellectual wealth contained in traditional Chinese and Indian herbal medicine. Obviously it is much easier to colonise unregistered readily available knowledge than having to go through a process of spending and hard work to invent or discover new ones. Similarly intriguing are the efforts by the so called “patent holding companies” who themselves are simply incapable of any scientific innovation but amass huge quantities of trivial non-commercialised ideas or inventions in hope of leeching money out of someone who eventually creates a commercial value for them. It is almost useless these days to conduct research outside the realms of huge multinational corporations. Unless you are willing to sift through reams of intellectual property filings, you will find that your own years of hard work was wholly or partly already registered in someone else's name in such vague and stretchable terms that you can be inferred to have committed an infringement.

I am not saying that there should be no commercialisation of knowledge. I realise that scientific research today is much different from the one from the days of Newton. There is a lot of spending involved in terms of equipment, real estate and resources to set up a research facility and in spite of that, the researchers hit up on a commercially successful project only once in a while. Drug manufacturers are well known to lose their market value heavily, the moment they fail to get an approval for a new drug from the government - so much of their well being is tied to the intellectual property that they are allowed to keep. There needs to be a different system to fairly compensate and support legitimate research establishments and researchers, when their projects are successful and when they fail. The current intellectual property regime seems to benefit the legal wranglers rather than genuine innovators- it is by no means a genuine way to compensate and reward the efforts of the beautiful minds of the world.

Okay, enough ranting.

I do not see the intellectual property regime continuing to be enforceable the way it is. The main reason, as I mentioned before, is that humans, by nature, shared and improved upon each others' ideas – and such cooperation has been the bedrock of our evolution as a civilisation. Secondly, it takes a draconian police state - almost as brutal as one that is needed to sustain a dictatorship - to enforce it. I cannot see the dictators themselves being interested in enforcing intellectual property rights of foreign entities, and the third world democracies of various hues are even less likely to be interested or able to do so. Unless China, India, former Soviet states and Latin America wholeheartedly implement the intellectual property rules set by the US and the European Union, I believe that the current practise of colonising knowledge will crumble under its own inner conflict. There are already noises about China trying to “steal technology” from the developed nations, India manufacturing “generic versions of patented drugs” and Russia being the hotbed of piracy.

I do not think that the elite's attempts to rule by proxy will end there. There will always be the “middle class” intellectuals available for hire who would come up with a new instruments of exploitation and colonisation. Nor do I think that the intellectual property regime will collapse in Prof. Tom's professional lifetime - how long ever he chooses that to be. I wish him well. His profession - not so much.