The idea of protecting Intellectual Property (IP) is not a new one.
According to a study by Stanford University, one of the earliest references to the protection of IP dates to 500 B.C.E. In exchange for creating new culinary delights, chefs in the Greek colony of Sybaris were granted year-long monopolies over their recipes.
This continued into Roman times, where Roman jurists discussed ownership interests associated with an intellectual work, differentiating between the ownership of a painting and the ownership of a table upon which the painting appears.
IP evolved sporadically until the 17th and 18th centuries, when novel concepts started to emerge, such as the 1710 Act to create a 14-year monopoly to protect authors’ interests in the public domain.
The idea of an agreement came into being, one which strives to create a balance between private rights and the public interest.
The modern patent system was founded on an agreement: the disclosure of an idea in exchange for a 20-year monopoly over that idea. In other words, the public benefits of disseminating information were considered valuable enough to grant a private good to a patent holder in exchange for the right to make, use and sell the patented item.
Protection of authorship through copyright motivated authors to continue creating, for the benefit of humanity. The protection of trademarks allowed a manufacturer or merchant to identify goods and distinguish them from goods produced by others – encouraging quality and safety for the public.
This agreement between public and private interests is an important one – and has resulted in significant benefits for humanity. From drugs for major diseases to technologies for better sanitation, and from art and culture to the quality of everyday products, the protection of IP has provided incentives to repeatedly foster human progress. By leveraging this public compact to advance technology and cultural diversity, IP plays a critical role in addressing global challenges such as climate change, energy and food security, biodiversity and public health.
But while the idea of IP is not new, some of the challenges facing the Intellectual Property system are.
They include stresses such as the increasingly global nature of IP, while protection systems remain largely country-based. This is demonstrated by the digital rights to music, struggling to keep up with concepts such as internet radio.
Strains like the increasing complexity of technologies and, accordingly, their specific applications. Some large data sets have so much IP contributing that it is becoming impossible to manage IP protection.
The share of global IP ownership and application is also changing – 40% of all patent applications now come from Asia, with China leading the rate of global patent growth at 33% per annum in 2011.
Serious questions arise, such as whether we are still extracting maximum benefit from that initial public bargain. Are we getting sufficient information disclosure, entrepreneurial creativity and public trust in exchange for the protection awarded?
These are far-reaching issues – the strains have the potential to affect the global IP system’s level of performance as the custodian of stable, secure, affordable and transparent generation, protection and sharing of innovation and knowledge.
With all of these changes underway, we ask: Can a system largely designed hundreds of years ago cope with these modern challenges?
Have we gone too far in protecting IP rights or have we not gone far enough? Or are current provisions just right? Do global IP rules and practices need to adapt to new expectations and demands arising, among others, from the digital environment and the intensification of innovation?
These very questions will be put to our panel at the Annual Meeting of New Champions in Tianjin this week.
Author: James Moody is Co-chair of the Global Access In Action and the Vice-Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Intellectual Property System.
Picture: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun