Strange Coincidences: Tainted Toothpaste and the Intellectual Property Cops

It seemed a little fishy earlier this year when news first broke of tainted toothpaste from China. Was it totally coincidental that those disclosures came just as Congress was about to take up a bill to make it easier for Americans to buy drugs from Canada and Europe, and so avoid the ridiculous prices the drug companies charge here?  The bill failed, amid a flurry of concern about the safety of health-care products from abroad  (a concern that was notably absent during the sales jobs for Nafta and Gatt.)  This was even though there have been no reports of tainted drugs from Canada to my knowledge, only lower prices.

Now there is a new round of disclosures, this time regarding children’s toys with lead paint and kindred health hazards.  I have little doubt that China’s eager entrepreneurs have been less than fastidious.  Why would we expect them to be any different than America’s were at a similar stage in its development.  (Cf. Upton Sinclair’s description of the U.S. meatpacking industry in The Jungle.)  But then I saw a story in the current Business Week(September 24, 2007)  that suggested something more might be afoot.


Property and Freedom: Those Who Saw What Was Coming

In my last post I reflected on how an excessive assertion of property rights can turn this supposed bulwark of freedom into a threat to it.  Intellectual property is an especially virulent example. Ideas by their very nature suffuse everything; so in the name of protecting intellectual property rights the state could inject itself into just about everything.  A recent example is the proposed Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007, in which Alberto Gonzalez, the attorney general, is seeking new authority to tap our phones and otherwise trespass into our lives.

If Mr. Gonzalez had any historical awareness – let alone self-respect – he would know that the early writers on human freedom were worried about precisely the issues his proposal raises. Would love of lucre undermine the freedom that made prosperity possible?  Would the protection of property become the entering wedge for the very tyrant that property was supposed to check?  When freedom was still a live idea, rather than an encrusted doctrine and polemical cudgel, people were alert to the danger that the commercial version of it could spawn.


The Property Police State: Alberto Gonzalez Seeks More Power to Tap Our Phones

There was a time, long ago, when the concept of “property” was a bulwark against an oppressive and arbitrary state. But the supposed bulwark has turned into a means of infiltration; and the latest evidence is the proposed Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007. Alberto Gonzalez, the Attorney General who used the election laws to try to keep Democrats from voting, now wants more authority to wiretap our phones in the name of protecting intellectual property.  He seems oblivious to the alarms that raises.

Everything is in some sense an idea.  We name things, hold images of them in our minds. All we know of anything, ultimately, is our idea of it.  So the concept of intellectual property has a boundary problem from the start.  Congress and the courts have fed this tendency through constant expansion of the copyright and patent laws.  Where property rights go the powers of the state follow, as the Administration’s enforcement proposal demonstrates.


GMO Seeds, the Green Revolution, and the Corporate Enclosure of Agriculture

The Straus Dairy near my town has gained a national reputation for innovation.  It was the nation’s first organic dairy West of the Mississippi.  It converts methane gas from bovine emissions into electricity.  Just a few weeks ago, Straus announced that it has been certified as GMO-Free, which means that it uses no crops grown from genetically engineered seeds.

The Point Reyes Light, our local weekly, reported on this development in a way that was straightforward and informative.  But the editor, who moved out here from New York and bought the paper about a year ago, took it upon himself to undercut the Straus family. He wrote a long editorial that contended that GMO crops not only are safe for humans and the habitat; more, they are necessary to feed a hungry world.


The Seed Gestapo and Third World Farmers

In my wife’s dialect of kari-ya, which is spoken on the island of Panay, in the Philippines, there is a word binhi, which refers to the grains of rice that are set aside and used as seeds in the next planting season.  There is a knack to choosing these.  You want plump grains with no blemishes. Every farmer knows how to do it, and usually their families too.

This is not a quaint Third World custom.  Seeds are independence, and survival. “When you have rice under the house,” my wife’s father says, “you do not have worries.”  When you have seeds, then you will have rice, given just a little cooperation from nature.   Those days might be numbered, though. The creep of “intellectual property” – which is the stalking horse for corporate control – into the fields of peasant farmers,  is making their independence a thing of the past, and has put their survival into question.


Inkjet Printers, Patents and Business Plan Protection

It seems almost a law of human nature that we become replicas of that which we rebel against.   Children turn into revised versions of the parent they hate.  The karmic chains hold nations too.  Look at America’s deepening class system, its hereditary entitlements enhanced by the rollback of the estate tax, and the spread of government-sanctioned commercial monopolies through the abuse of the patent system.  It does sound a bit like the colonial power we once declared our independence from.

The patent system was supposed to help avert this cycle. It was supposed to spur innovation, and thus help the nation escape the swamps of commercial entitlement that Mother England had fallen into  The system was not supposed to help corporations protect a business model and ensure a constant stream of monopoly gains.  Yet that is what it often has become.  Inkjet printers are a case in point.


When Patents Become “Financial Assets”: Megabuck Patent Trolls and the Conflict Between Production and Finance

A little over a century ago, in the wake of the crash of 1895, Brooks Adams, brother of the more famous Henry, set out to understand the role of money and finance in the larger sweep of human history.  The result was a book, The Law of Civilization and Decay, which rightly has been called a neglected American classic.

To simplify greatly, Adams saw in Western history a chronic conflict between two economic types – those who produce wealth in actual things on the one hand, and those who conjure gain out of an abstraction of wealth called money on the other. When a society is vital, Adams observed, the producer is ascendant.  But when the financial type gets the upper hand, it generally signals a decline.  Which brings me to Nathan Myhrvold, the first technology chief of Microsoft, and his new company Intellectual Ventures.


Who Owns the Batting Average of David Ortiz?

Let’s suppose that the Diebold Corporation gained a monopoly on vote counting in the U.S., and then tried to charge a royalty for the use of vote counts in news reports, academic studies, and the like.  It’s not that far-fetched.   I used to work for a House member who served on the Agriculture Committee during the Reagan years.  After Reagan privatized the assembly of certain Ag Department data, this Congressman got a letter from the company that got the contract, offering to sell him, at a hefty price, the data he was authorizing taxpayer money to collect.

Faced with the Diebold scenario, most of us would say, “Wait a minute.  How can you ‘own’ information that the taxpayers pay for and that concerns a public event that is central to the functioning of our democracy?  For that matter, how can you ‘own’ any information – the raw data not the write-up of it – that has been reported and discussed throughout the nation?”  That exact case hasn’t arisen yet to my knowledge.  But a somewhat similar one took an encouraging turn this week, when a federal judge in Missouri ruled that fantasy baseball leagues – and by extension perhaps others as well – don’t have to pay a royalty to the major league monopoly for the use of baseball statistics.


Bamboo for Who?

Once again the question: who would bother to develop a technology for which they didn’t hold a patent monopoly? And once again the answer: lots of people. Today’s case in point is bamboo scaffolds.

Bamboo is a wonderful material. It is a form of grass; so that when cut, it grows back again – and fast, in a matter of months where a tree takes many years. The wood is light, strong, and flexible. It has a multitude of uses, from houses and furniture to carabao (water buffalo) sleds and even bicycle frames. A bamboo house breathes; the slats feel cool under bare feet. And then there are scaffolds.