02 September 2009

Is This a Wind-up?

A major British inventor is calling for a change in the law to strengthen protection against those who try to steal ideas.

Trevor Baylis, who invented the wind-up radio, has written to the business secretary urging him to criminalise the theft of intellectual property.

The move would involve a fundamental change to the law on patents.

Currently, inventors have to sue those they believe have stolen their idea through the civil courts.

For an apparently intelligent inventor, this is a rather foolish thing to suggest.

It's foolish on a theoretical level, as this quotation proves:

"If I was to nick your car, which is worth £10,000, say, I could go to jail," Trevor Baylis told the BBC.

"But if I were to nick your patent, which is worth a million pounds, you'd have to sue me.

Which is the old confusion between theft and infringement. Indeed, it's probably impossible to nick a patent, since it's a government-granted monopoly, and they're pretty hard to steal.

And it's foolish on a practical level: imagine the current insanity of patent law cases turned into even higher-stake criminal cases, and the burden they would imposed on an already stretched legal system.

So, Trevor, do stick to inventing clever things, and leave stupid intellectual monopolies alone.

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Rob Weir said...

I don't know how you do it in the UK, but in the US the burden of proof changes from "preponderance of the evidence" in civil cases to "beyond a reasonable doubt" in criminal cases. So I'm not sure Baylis's own goals would even be achieved by his proposal.

Glyn Moody said...

@Rob: that's a good point. Yet another reason it would be unworkable.

Steve Jones said...

The idea is bonkers. In the area of patent law, which is notoriously difficult and often subject to some semingly arbitary decision, then proving intent beyond reasonable doubt is going to be difficult (although in some offences demonstrating recklessness would suffice). Well that's unless TB is suggesting this be a strict liability offense in which case the world has truly gone mad.

I would also suggest to Trevor Baylis that individual inventors would also be subject to any such laws and does he really want major corporations to have the threat of criminal sanctions against individuals (although the civil sanctions for breach of copyright can actually be worse than those for criminal theft of property).

The history of powerful institutions having monopoly control of ideas is not new. Medieval Europe was plagued with the malign influence of established churches, craft guilds anf state granted monopolies on ideas as well as goods. Putting the power of criminal law behind major corporations who would "own" ideas is profoundly illiberal. Trevor Baylis may thinking he is supporting the small inventor, but the reality will be that it will likely entrench the power of major corporations.

The other thing that Trevor Baylis ought to realise is that a government granted monopoly on the exploitation of an idea is there to support innovation, not as some sort of recognition of worth. We now seem to have arrived at a point where some companies exist solely to exploit patent rights, even though they have no intention of developing it themselves. Just how many good ideas are sitting on the shelf, or expensively worked round, just for this reason.

Current patent practice may already have passed the point where it supresses more innovation than it encourages. Adding criminal sanctions is going to make that worse.

Glyn Moody said...

@Steve: excellent points. As you may know, I feel v. strongly about the last one in particular.

Colin R Brown said...

I am South African and not white and have had to endure more than most in an attempt to maintain ownership of my IP. It is with contempt that I note your comments and the attempt to trivialise the abilities of those individuals capable of generating IP! In places like Japan, innovators designers and inventors are revered, hence the rate of growth of their economies perhaps if that was a practice the rest of the world was prepared to accept, global economies would have more parity and big business would have less of a strangle hold!

Glyn Moody said...

@colin: I'm not trivialising "the abilities of those individuals": they are clearly hugely important. It's the whole system of intellectual monopolies - patents and copyright - that I'm criticising.

There's simply *no* evidence that patents encourage innovation. And they play into the hands of big business, since the later can use the legal system to force independent inventors to either license patents or just acquiesce in their infringement.

Anonymous said...

what is intellectual ownership? - for wind up radios?