Input Knowledge, Output Information, and the Irony of Under the Radar Expansion of IP

Peter Lee’s thoughtful review of Talent Wants to Be Free goes straight to the heart of the issues. Peter describes a “central irony about information” – so many aspects of our knowledge cannot lend themselves to traditional monopolization through patents and copyright that their appropriation is done under the radar,  through the more dispersed and covert regimes of talent wars rather than the more visible IP wars. We’ve always understood intellectual property law as a bargain: through patents and copyright, we allow monopolization of information for a limited time as a means to the end of encouraging progress in science and art. We understand the costs however and we strive as a society to draw the scope of these exclusive rights very carefully. and deliberately. We have heated public debates about the optimal delineation of patents, and we are witnessing new legislative reforms and significant numbers of recent SCOTUS cases addressing these tradeoffs. But patents are only a sliver of all the information that is needed to sustain innovative industries and creative ventures. Without much debate, the monopolization of knowledge has expanded far beyond the bargain struck in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.  Through contractual and regulatory law, human capital – people themselves – their skills and tacit knowledge, their social connections and professional ties, and their creative capacities and inventive potential are all the subject to market attempts, aided by public enforcement, of monopolization. Peter refers to these as tacit versus codified knowledge; I think about inputs, human inventive powers versus outputs – the more tangible iterations of intangible assets – the traditional core IP, which qualifies patentability to items reduced to practice (rather than abstraction) and copyrightable art to expressions (rather than ideas). Cognitive property versus intellectual property, if you will.

Lee is absolutely correct that university tech transfer and its challenges and often discontent is highly revealing in this context of drawing fences around ideas and knowledge. Lee writes “in subtle ways, Orly’s work thus offers a cogent exposition of the limits of patent law and formal technology transfer.” Lee’s recent work on tech transfer Transcending the Tacit Dimension: Patents, Relationships, and Organizational Integration in Technology Transfer, California Law Review 2012 is a must read. Lee shows that “effective technology transfer often involves long-term personal relationships rather than discrete market exchanges. In particular, it explores the significant role of tacit, uncodified knowledge in effectively exploiting patented academic inventions. Markets, patents, and licenses are ill-suited to transferring such tacit knowledge, leading licensees to seek direct relationships with academic inventors themselves.” And Lee’s article also uses the lens of the theory of the firm, the subject of the exchanges here, to illuminate the role of organizational integration in transferring university technologies to the private sector. I think that in both of our works, trade secrets are an elephant in the room. And I hope we continue to think more about how can trade secrets, which have been called the step child of intellectual property, be better analyzed and defined.

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