Video Podcast at http://genepatents.info

I’ve created a website for people to discuss gene patenting. It’s at http://genepatents.info. On that site, you will find video podcasts from last week’s public discussion on gene patenting. If you have comments or thoughts to share on this very important issue, please add them to “comments” section at genepatents.info.

This Friday: Should Genes be Patented?

Just a quick reminder that our public event on gene patenting is this Friday. It’s on an issue that affects all of us, and promises to be interesting. To find out more and to register, visit http://www.ipria.org/events/seminar/Patenting%20Genes.html:

IPRIA.org and the MBS Center for Ideas and the Economy are organizing a panel debate and public discussion on the topic “Should Genes be Patented?” This is an issue that has drawn heated debate across the world in recent years. It is also currently the subject of an Australian Government Senate Inquiry. The purpose of this event is to provide a forum for academics, government officials, business leaders and scientists to discuss the issue of gene patenting.
DATE: Friday 24 April 2009
TIME: 9.30am-11.30am (Registration and Refreshments from 9.00am)
VENUE: Coles Theatre, Melbourne Business School, 200 Leicester Street, Carlton, Victoria
COST: free of charge.

The disclosure solution?

One of the little noted benefits of IP is that it can protect inventors from having their ideas expropriated and thereby facilitate trade in ideas. Bob Kearns was dealt a blow by Ford trying to sell the intermittent windshield wiper but eventually got a patent payout. Today, news that an Australian innovator has benefited from this:

Uniloc argued Mr Richardson showed his program to Microsoft in 1993 on the proviso that the computer giant would not try to break the code or duplicate it.

Uniloc claimed that in 1997 or 1998, Microsoft breached this agreement and began using similar software in its pilot programs.

Microsoft denied any breach, arguing it had developed a different system after deciding Uniloc’s software was of no use.

The half a billion dollar payout dwarfs that for the intermittent windshield wiper so I wonder if it will stick. In any case, it shows that there is some recourse.

Internet Sales and Copyright

Last month, CMCL and IPRIA organized an event to discuss whether internet service providers should be responsible when their customers upload/download illegal material. I wasn’t able to attend, but Sarah Berriman, one of my young and energetic students, did. She wrote to me expressing how a ‘generation gap’ exists in the way the music industry perceives its customers.

The main points made by each speaker were interesting, but also not unexpected. There seems to be a disconnect between the copyright holders and their customers.  They don’t seem able to adapt to the needs and desires of the current generation, and it is a mystery to many why this should be.  It is not as though broad and expensive market research is required to tell them this: the cinema is perceived as poor value for money.  People like convenience, and having things when they want and how they want.  Is it really such a leap to move to simultaneous international online sales?  Is copyright the issue here, or the protection of an outdated business model?  Perhaps it is time infringers were offered a carrot, instead of perennially getting the stick. [reproduced with permission from Sarah Berriman, Medical Student, Melbourne University]

Today I received a stack of books from amazon.com. They were shipped all the way across the world from Kentucky in the United States. And no less by the same company that refuses to sell me the very same books as electronic downloads because we are outside the United States. I am glad I’m young enough to fall into the same side of the generation divide as Sarah.

Should Genes be Patented?

Should Genes be Patented? This is a question of tremendous importance, and one that is the subject of an Australian Senate Inquiry. Chris Dent and I sent in a submission on behalf of IPRIA and CITE, which is available here. We believe there is insufficient empirical evidence (yet) upon which to make specific changes to patent law. Other people have quite different views, as expressed in their submissions. Next month, we are organizing a CITE & IRIA public event on this topic. It will include a discussion by four panelists: Gillian Mitchell of the PeterMac Cancer Centre, Gregory Mandel from Temple University, Dianne Nicol from the University of Tasmania, and Dan Peled from Haifa University in Israel. The event will be chaired and moderated by Joshua, and will include a 45-minute public debate. Post your thoughts here. Or better still, sign up for the event at http://www.ipria.org/events/seminar/Patenting%20Genes.html

The PC disappoints on book parallel imports

Regular readers know that I favour parallel importing of books into Australia because I want to encourage reading of them. The Productivity Commission just released its draft report into the issue. It identifies me as one of the chief types of people who would benefit from restrictions on parallel imports (I am an Australian author, whose books are sold overseas and most of the books I sell are educational texts at a currently high price). So my income would go down if parallel importing were allowed. My point being: when I continue to say that I want parallel imports, I say this in the context where it would harm my income.

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I sadly don’t have time to go into the details of the PC’s report but will do so later on. The chief policy recommendation is that parallel imports be allowed 12 months after the publication of the book in Australia. So I have to say, that is an improvement over the current blanket ban.

So who does this hurt? Well, me. My textbooks make their money mostly after the first 12 months of publication. In addition, a book like Parentonomics was published overseas 8 months after its publication in Australia. Let me tell you, no one is printing large volumes of that until after 12 months.

But who does it protect? It protects the predictable best sellers. If you are expected to have a big selling book, you can charge a high price in Australia during the time you expect to sell most of it. Let me tell you: culturally and otherwise, these are not the authors most in need of protection. But let’s not pretend this is protecting the untried Australian authors. It is not. It is a tweak to deregulation so that politicians do not have to answer complaints from noted authors in the press. But then again, if that works to get some form of deregulation, so be it.

The big loss is, of course, to the future. We need an amazon.com in Australia with all that it brings but they won’t set up shop here unless they can sell the bestsellers cheaply to get customers used to online purchasing. So who else does this rule protect? Current bricks and mortar booksellers.

Finally, the Productivity Commission is claiming that it supports evidence based policy making. I cannot imagine many sectors as data filled as bookselling and publishing. Yet, is there is a single bit of quantitative data analysis? No. The whole report is full of recounting the opinions of submitters to the Commission. What is more there is hardly a single academic study – of which there are many – that is cited by the Commission let alone relied upon.

[Update: Actually I am told there was some quantitative work behind this and it will be available soon as a technical appendix. So that last paragraph may need to be qualified.]

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Market proxies for innovation

So how can you make money out of innovation without a patent? Take positions in firms or assets that will appreciate (or I guess depreciate) if the innovation is successful. It is an old idea but a new paper by Debrah Meloso, Jernej Copic and Peter Bossaerts in Science tests it out in the laboratory against a patent-like system. I’m not sure what to make of it yet but it is interesting.

[DDET Read abstract]

Because they provide exclusive property rights, patents are generally considered to be an effective way to promote intellectual discovery. Here, we propose a different compensation scheme, in which everyone holds shares in the components of potential discoveries and can trade those shares in an anonymous market. In it, incentives to invent are indirect, through changes in share prices. In a series of experiments, we used the knapsack problem (in which participants have to determine the most valuable subset of objects that can fit in a knapsack of fixed volume) as a typical representation of intellectual discovery problems. We found that our "markets system" performed better than the patent system.

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RailCorp Timetable Intervention

Now usually when we talk about the lack of open public information, everyone agrees and politicians duck the issue. Following up on the NSW rail timetable issue last week, this story today about a high level non-ducking:

The NSW Premier, Nathan Rees, has jumped into the middle of a spat between RailCorp and mobile software developers and has chosen to side with the developers. …

In a new Twitter message, Rees indicated he would override RailCorp’s decision and force the bureaucracy to meet the mobile software developers and work out a way they can use the timetable data.

“I’ve asked [Transport] Minister [David] Campbell to speak to RailCorp. They will meet with the app developers to negotiate how to use the info accurately,” Rees wrote.

Campbell this morning confirmed he had “asked RailCorp to meet with these developers and see if they can work together on a way forward”.

Excellent. This is progress. Hopefully, it will lead to real change.

Stefan Wagner: Research Seminar on Patent Thickets

Stefan Wagner is currently visiting us from Munich. Last week he presented a research paper on patent thickets (coauthored with Georg von Graevenitz and Dietmar Harhoff). The main contributions of the paper are (a) explaining how “complexity” is not just about how difficult a technology is to master, but also about whether firms have to commercialize discrete versus interconnected facets of technological knowledge, and (b) they present an empirical analysis of European patent data,  using a novel measure of whether prior patents are deemed to be “blocking” each focal innovation. If you would like to watch the highlights of his seminar, I have posted a video at http://vimeo.com/3445520. You can download the paper from SSRN or contact Stefan for a copy.

Open public information! NSW RailCorp insanity edition

What do we want on mobile phone? Public transport time table information. It helps commuters and saves the environment. Is there anyone who could be harmed? No, but provide a value opportunity and there is some moron ready to take it away.

According to this ZDNet report, Alvin Singh, who has developed Transit Sydney – an iPhone application that provides a train timetable for Sydney – took his application to the No.2 spot for travel applications on the iTunes App Store only to be sent a legal cease and desist notice from Rail Corporation NSW:

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“I advise that copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp,” said the email, which has been seen by ZDNet.com.au. “Any use of these timetables in a manner which breaches copyright by a third party can only occur through the grant of a suitable licence by RailCorp.”

This is a government organisation whose statement of values includes “We work hard to provide quality customer service” and “We work within a just culture that will be honest and ethical” but want to put up barriers to get key information out to customers at no cost to them.

Singh took the legal route and here is what he found:

Asked under what terms a developer could get access to a “suitable licence” as per the email sent to Singh, Rea said such licences are currently unavailable to developers while RailCorp firms up its own mobile development strategy. A timetable application for iPhone and other mobile users is expected later in the year, he said, although it was not yet clear whether this would be provided for free or at a price.

Oh great. Suggest the only route is to do A and then so you can’t do A. Their own “mobile development strategy”? Come on. What is the harm? So long as Singh doesn’t claim to be official and customers are informed, then there is no problem.

Here is what RailCorp say:

“RailCorp’s primary concern here is that our customers receive accurate, up-to-date timetable information,” RailCorp spokesperson Paul Rea explained. “This includes details of service interruptions, special event services, track work and other changes.”

Well actually, is RailCorp worried that customers who know about timetables might complain when the trains don’t run on time? Hmm, maybe they want to provide ‘indicative’ timetables only.

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