Is IP another bubble about to burst? A view from another civilization. |

Is IP another bubble about to burst? A view from another civilization.

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As a child growing up in India, one of the first things I learned is a hymn to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, which says that:

Wonderful is your gift of knowledge
the more we share, the more it grows
the more we hoard it, the more it diminishes

As a grown-up living in a globalized world, I am constantly bombarded by the the term, “intellectual property.”

Policy makers keep saying that India should create more IP. Countless seminars extol the virtues of IP even as patents are granted for “Method for swinging on a swing,” "Method for Concealing Partial Baldness." In the computer industry, patents are routinely granted for things that are obvious and have been known for years. Things have come to such a pass that even an industry veteran like Andy Grove was forced to say that,  “The true value of an invention is its usefulness to the public. Patents themselves have become products. They're instruments of investment traded on a separate market, often by speculators motivated by the highest financial return on their investment....

“The patent product brings financial derivatives to mind. Derivatives have a complex relationship with an underlying asset. While there's nothing wrong with them in principle, their unfettered use has damaged the financial services industry and possibly the entire economy."

“Do these patent instruments put us on a similar road? I fear our patent system increasingly serves those who invest in the patent products.” When a veteran like Andy Grove becomes paranoid, you and I better watch out!

Patents were meant to reward innovation, so the question is, "How did we lose our way?"

The current model of trying to "propertize," "privatize" and "commoditize" knowledge comes from a very mercantile, reductionist model of treating knowledge. That may be OK for other countries, which have "intellectual propertized" their knowledge and hold the balance of power in IP Rights, but not for India which has had a long, rich tradition of free knowledge cultures like yoga, ayurveda, mathematics and many other disciplines. It would not be far-fetched to say that many Indian traditions place a moral imperative on sharing knowledge.

One of my favorite stories illustrates the importance accorded to the sharing of knowledge. After the brutal battle of Kalinga, the Emperor Ashoka was so overcome with remorse that he renounced bloodshed and embraced Buddhism. As part of his penance, Ashoka went to monasteries across the country. At each monastery, he would leave munificent donations of gold coins. At one monastery, the emperor left behind one solitary gold coin. When his perplexed followers asked him to explain, Ashoka said that the abbot of the monastery was a great man but he did not share his knowledge with others.

This is a deep-seated ethos that is thousands of years old. This is the ethos that created open knowledge traditions like yoga, ayurveda etc, that are freely used by all. However, when India seeks to use "their" "intellectual property" (allopathic medicine, software and business method patents etc.) we are told, "pay up or else...." Talk about an unequal exchange!

The contrast is best illustrated by what happened with Bikram Yoga taught by celebrity yoga teacher, Bikram Chowdhury who makes a fortune teaching yoga to Americans. Bikram copyrighted a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated upto 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that Yoga is a body of knowledge which has been free from copyrights, patents and "intellectual property" for more than 2000 years. When asked why, Bikram said that he sought legal protection because "it's the American way."

Each society evolves systems that suit its own needs. Most of India's traditions of knowledge spring forth from a spiritual base whereas America's treatment of knowledge has a mercantile bias. This is not to pass a value judgment on either. The problem arises when, in a globalizing society the two systems clash and are unable to harmonize with each other.

Sadly most of India's thinking around legal protection of knowledge has been "derivative" in nature, a shoddy cut and paste job from the "mature IP systems" of the West. However, as the Bilski case shows, even these "mature IP systems" are having second thoughts on how they treat knowledge, or in this specific case, business methods. As I have argued in my previous blog entry, "The Practical Problem with Software Patents," the litigation-ridden path followed by US in granting software and business method patents is something India must avoid at all costs.

I could go on and on, but let me just end with one small piece of evidence. As I mentioned earlier, I have grown up in an Indian tradition that believes that knowledge grows by sharing. Does this wisdom hold true in the Internet era?

In September 1991, Linus Torvalds released 10,000 lines of code for building an operating system, under the General Public License. The GPL license encouraged people to take this 10,000 lines of code, modify it and share the resulting improvements with the rest of the world. A recent study by the Linux Foundation estimated that the code base for the Fedora 9 Linux distribution is now 204 million lines of code!

This is one of the finest examples of Collaborative Innovation that has been made possible by the growth of the Internet. With 1.4 billion people connected to the Internet and another 600 million set to join up in the next two years, the Internet is the greatest collaborative platform in the history of mankind. The attempt to "propertize" knowledge in the Internet era is doomed to fail. Instead, we will see knowledge returning to its rightful place in the commons and the open source principles of collaboration, community and the shared ownership of knowledge being applied to thousands of disciplines. As the commercial distributions of Linux demonstrate, even when knowledge lives in the commons, it is possible to build profitable business models around it.

When we look back on our times, we may find that the term, "Intellectual Property" has taken its place along side another archaic term, "Horseless Carriage." Both were attempts to impose metaphors of the past on the future. And the folly of our times is that we treat inexhaustible resources like knowledge as finite resource and treat finite resources like oil and forests as infinite resources. The sooner we turn these attitudes around, the better it will be for the future of mankind.

Venkatesh Hariharan is Corporate Affairs Director (Asia-Pacific), Red Hat.

About the author

Venkatesh Hariharan (Venky) - Venkatesh Hariharan is Corporate Affairs Director (Asia-Pacific) at Red Hat. In this role, he works with industry, academia, government and the community to accelerate the growth of the global open source movement. In 2006, he was awarded the "Indian Open Source Personality of the Year" by the organizers of Linux Asia 2006. Hariharan is a former Executive Editor of Express Computer and the first Indian to be selected for the prestigious Knight Science Journalism Fellowship (1998-99) at...