On any given day you can find thousands of words of reporting, advocacy and debate over the role of patents in technology. One side promotes the availability of patent protection as the source of much innovation, while the other contends that patents have exactly the opposite effect, and many other vices besides.
There is, however, one inequity that patents help to perpetuate that gets little attention. That inequity arises in the area of standards, where the owners of patents can exercise significant influence not only over the costs of implementing standards, but over who can reap the greatest economic benefits from producing standardized products at all. In a nutshell, this inequity works to the favor of patent owners in developed countries, and to the disadvantage of the industries of developing countries, making it that much harder for those living in emerging nations to attain the same standard of living as those lucky enough to be born into the developed world.
I dedicated the latest issue of my eJournal, Standards Today, to this topic, and if you're interested in the intersection of social justice, intellectual property and government, you might find it worth a read. Here's what the issue is all about.
The current standards infrastructure has its roots not just in the last century, but in the one before. Over the last 125 years or so, that structure has been through some changes, such as the founding of global standards bodies like ISO, IEC and the ITU. More recently, the information and communication technology (ICT) industries have seen the formation of the hundreds of consortia that now provide the majority of ICT standards.
All of these changes, however, have been accomplished largely at the behest of stakeholders in the developed nations. The result, I believe, is that the structure that has evolved to meet the standardization requirements of the First World is not adequate to meet the needs of the rest of humanity, and in particular of the rapidly emerging economies of China and India, among other nations.
I begin this discussion in my Editorial, titled It's Time for IPR Equal Opportunity in International Standard Setting. In this piece, I highlight the disproportionate advantage that the corporations headquartered in long-developed countries enjoy over those based in developing nations as they seek to make their way into the global marketplace. In particular, I focus on the formidible patent portfolios owned by the traditional market leaders, and the prospect for a succession of international standards wars unless greater emphasis is placed on adoption of royalty-free standards by the ICT industry.
I take a deeper dive on the same topic in the feature article, which is aptly (I think) called Government Policy and Standards-Based Neocolonialism. In this piece, I analogize the current situation to the colonialism of the past. In prior times, developed nations extracted resources from the colonies that they seized, and also used these new territories as captive markets into which they could sell European goods. Today, a sort of patent-based neocolonialism allows the corporations in developed nations to subcontract manufacturing to factories in developing countries. There, cheap labor can produce inexpensive products which can then be sold at a healthy markup both locally and around the world under the brand of the foreign patent owner. Meanwhile, high standards-related royalties effectively bar the same factories from selling similar products under their own brands. The results are predictable, and I suggest a number of ways in which the rules might be changed to level the playing field to the ultimate benefit of all.
The issue also includes revised versions of two pieces that have already appeared here in the Standards Blog, the first of which (called OOXML, ODF and UOF: What's Up in China?) uses the development of UOF and the recent defeat of OOXML in China as an example of how developing nations are taking action to promote their industries in spite of the efforts of First World industries efforts to maintain their primacy.
If you're so inclined to learn more, I invite you to read these articles to see once again how the world in which we live is one increasingly interconnected community. Even in the world of standards, we are reminded that what benefits us most is what benefits us all. And if you like what you read, remember that you can get a free subscription to Standards Today by signing up for one here.
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