Patents and the Commons

The idea that the results of publicly funded research should be returned to the Commons rings true. However a lot of publicly funded research is done by companies who want to invent new products that they can sell. Typically this research is partially self-funded by these companies. New products make a profit typically as long as competitors cannot make the same product, or cannot make it at the same cost.

If research results had to be placed in the public domain, the company carrying out the research would have less of an edge towards its competitors.

That may not be a bad thing, because a lot of waste happens because everyone needs the newest gadget as soon as it’s out, even if the old gadget is still doing its job (think smartphones).

Long story short: What’s the business model for companies who place their publicly funded research results in the common and thereby gain less of a competitive edge than if they continued to keep their results either completely secret, or public but protected by patents?

Some relevant questions here that I found over in another topic (how do I cross-quote?); answers wanted!

Dean Baker, co-founder and senior economist at The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has a seminar series on the site at the following address:

The tenth of these seminars covers is titled Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyrights and Other Protectionist Barriers. The link is available on the page or go directly to the youtube video:

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Thanks - still have to watch the video; in the meantime, here’s the direct youtube link:

Many thanks. The video still seems valid today. Is the dialogue happening?

I think the way opensource works can be a positive example. Some businesses create opensource platforms, software, libraries, etc that anybody can use under a free-to-use licence. The business makes money from being the expert on these technologies, so if you are wanting to use the software, you can, but if you want help doing so, there are professional services you can pay for. As an example, it is interesting to see how Microsoft is embracing the opensource community by supporting various software libraries and processes. Their premise is that they can provide better tools, and there may be some small fee for that, but see the opensource community as a wide group of would-be customers.

Thanks - I agree that the opensource model shows that secrecy is not necessary as part of a business model.

However I am not sure that opensource works equally well for hardware. How would ARM make money if they gave away their designs for smartphone processors instead of licensing them to smartphone makers, which is their business model?

Like a lot of things, I suspect the truth lies in between. The thing about complex systems such as businesses, the ecosystems and human’s place in it, is that no one solution will fit all. But we might be able to learn from some other models and apply those learnings to a different problem. Arduino is an opensource hardware platform, and the originators certainly don’t make as much money as they might have done had they kept it closed source. But then, that was not their ambition - their intention was to spread the concepts for the common good, and make enough money to continue to support it. In some sense, I think the contrast between ARM and Arduino shows the battle we have when considering the way business ideas are valued, and it is fair to say that ARM would probably not be what they are now if they had been like Arduino. Which is better? A very good question, and that depends on how you define value.