Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Intellectual Property

Who owns intellectual property rights? The person from whom an idea is conceived or the person who develops that idea? A classic example is seen with this generation’s most popular social networking site facebook. Founder Mark Zuckerberg was sued by the Winklevos brothers, claiming that Facebook was developed from an idea they initially pitched to Mark. The brothers were compensated with $140million. As Mark interestingly stated during the trial, he developed an idea and turned it into something that no one in that court room could do, including the Winklevos brothers. That is the unquestionable advantage doers have over thinkers.  

During the 7th series of the UK TV program, “the apprentice” (a reality show where a group of aspiring businessmen and women compete for the chance to land a £100,000-a-year job with British business magnate Lord Sugar) where this time around the winning candidate was being offered a partnership as suppose to a job opportunity, Lord sugar made the obvious smart decision of partnering with Tom, an inventor of the curved nail file. Tom won only three of the twelve tasks set during the series in comparison to his opponent Helen who won 11 out of the 12 tasks yet Tom triumphed over Helen. Many were taken by surprise, as Helen was the favourite to win but I was not. Yes Tom’s business plan of selling ergonomic chairs to companies to reduce back injury by employers with the hope of combating absenteeism due to back injury was flawed but you can’t take away the creative mind and skilful hands of an inventor. Give him a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and you’ll have your next invention drawn up in no time. This was the advantage Tom had over Helen.

Why then does this not transcribe to ownership of intellectual property. A student makes a discovery in a university lab and the patent is a property of that lab. Fair enough without the facilities provided in the lab and the training and guidance given by supervisors that discovery would probably not be made. Some would argue that the benefits of that discovery be equal. However you can’t credit all the maths teachers who have ever taught Archimedes for his principle nor can you credit Newton’s physics teachers for Newton’s law. After all if they had not laid the basic educative foundation these scientists would probably not have grown to make those discoveries. But you don’t hear of Archimedes’ tutor suing him for developing the basic maths principles he first taught him? Why then should the work of students be credited to the labs? Or the work of employees be credited to the employer simply because those discoveries were made on their payroll.  

This brings me to a recent case where a company is suing one of its former employees for missing lab notebooks. Judy Mikovits a researcher was recently arrested and jailed after her former employers brought a law suit against her for absconding with lab notebooks and proprietary information. (Read full story here- http://blogs.nature.com/news/2011/11/researcher_arrested_over_missi.html).  It a basic rule of science, lab books is the property of the lab. So if you make chance discovery on another person’s payroll, what do you do? Scribble it down on a note pad and slip it into your bag and hope to have an independent opportunity to develop your chance discovery or do the right thing and record all occurrences in the golden lab book? Rules are rules and lab books stay in the lab.

Very few entrepreneurs out there never worked for anyone. Many developed ideas they had gained in previous employment and others are spring offs of larger companies or institutions. By this point the network has been established and you have a spring board to boost your efforts. But are the contacts established during your time on another’s pay roll not their property? After all if not for them you would probably never have come across those contacts. I know from reading Sir Richard Branson’s autobiography that he played a sneaky smart move on a colleague who had hinted him on a potential music artiste during conversation. He then took the opportunity to get in first and reap the benefits. Guess you’ve got to be shrewd in business. He simply developed an idea.

These are a few examples of many instances where one mans’ idea is lost in another’s development.

All researches surely know how this play out. Keep your cards close to your chest until you have credible data to publish. Once it gets out there, it is only a matter of time before the inventors’ runs off to develop your idea. More often than not in these instances, money dominates.  But should this really be the case. As the saying goes two heads are better than one. Business men and women, researchers and like-minded thinkers should be able to freely and openly share and brainstorm ideas, opportunities and discoveries without the insecurity of being robbed.  At the end of the day, you may rob my idea today but you can never have my brain. 
That is the power of intellectual property. 

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