Business TEDx

6 talks about problems with patents

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The Wright Brothers’ flying machine took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Credited as the first to successfully fly an airplane, the Wright Brothers were one of several in the early aviation game who were filing patents for their innovations and suing competitors who stepped on their turf. However, the US government eventually said ‘no’ to this patent warring.

“This was not so great for the development of the aviation industry,” says Ellen t’ Hoen in today’s talk, given at TEDxZurich. “This was a time when the US government was interested in ramping up the production of military airplanes. The US government decided to take action and forced those patent holders to make their patents available to share with others to enable the production of airplanes.”

t’ Hoen sees a parallel between this and the patenting of life-saving medications, like the antiretroviral drugs (ARV) used to treat HIV. Years ago, the cost for these drug cocktails was about $12,000 per person per year — meaning that people in wealthy countries had access to them while those in the developing world did not. India, however, did not recognize medical patents at the time and companies there began producing generic formulations. Soon, the cost dropped to $350 per patient per year. Many lives were saved as a result.

However, in 1995, the Word Trade Organization instituted new rules, calling for all countries to ensure 20-year patents for new medications. Since then, the number of patents in the area of ARVs has skyrocketed.

“Unless we do something deliberate and unless we do something now, we will very soon be faced with another drug price crisis,” says t’ Hoen. “Surely, if a patent pool could be established to ramp up the production of military airplanes, we should be able to do something similar to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

t’ Hoen offers a radical solution. To hear about the Medicines Patent Pool, which allows inventors and pharmaceutical companies to offer up their patents for licensing by non-profits and generic drug makers in low income countries, listen to t’ Hoen’s talk. Below, hear more talks about issues with patents.


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Drew Curtis: How I beat a patent troll
“Patent troll” is a term given to anyone who files a patent for something already being done, and then sues the people already doing it. In this talk from TED2012, Drew Curtis of explains how his company was sued for violating a patent for “news releases via email.” While most companies in this situation settle — defending yourself can cost $2 million and take 18 months, if you win — Curtis shares why he opted to press on.

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Kirby Ferguson: Embrace the remix
Creativity is not about coming up with something that the world has never seen before — it’s about copying, transforming and combining what’s already out there. This, however, complicates the idea of intellectual property. As Ferguson shares at TEDGlobal 2012, “American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Creative works may indeed be kind of like property — but it’s property that we’re all building on.”

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Beth Noveck: Demand a more open-source government
Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO at the White House, thinks that a government should call upon its citizens to share their expertise for the sake of better governance. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, she shares how, in the past, a single person in the U.S. Patent Office has had the authority to bestow a patent. But with the new Peer-to-Patent system, anyone can weigh on applications, including those who have a deeper base of knowledge in a field.

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Charles Leadbeater: The era of open innovation
Our patent system is based on an outdated idea, says Charles Leadbeater in this talk from TEDGlobal 2005. “All of our patents, our entire approach to patents and invention, is based on the idea that the inventor knows what the invention is for.” With rapidly expanding technology, however, Leadbeater says that innovations are cumulative, with new users adding on to previous uses on a near constant basis.

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Johanna Blakley: Lessons from fashion’s free culture
While many creative industries are shackled by patents and copyrighs, there is one that remains the Wild West — fashion. In this talk from TEDxUSC, Johanna Blakley shares how, counterintuitively, this is a good thing. Because trademarking is virtually the only type of intellectual property in fashion, a culture has developed where designers build on each other’s ideas and where discount takes on popular items are created for different shoppers.