Wednesday, February 17, 2010


This is the first in a multi-part blog on the topic of INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY in the sciences.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

- Howard Aiken (American computer engineer and mathematician 1900-1973)

Intellectual property is the "dark matter" of the scientific world. We know that there's a lot of it, that it's everywhere, and that it has a strong effect on our lives, but it's all quite invisible to our senses.

When we think of intellectual property, we usually think in terms of patents (for inventions and processes) and copyright (for literature). Patents are rights assigned to an inventor, for a specified interval, in exchange for disclosing his invention to the public. Patents probably came to us, like most great ideas, from the acient Greeks. In 500 B.C.E., the Greek colony Sybarus (in Southern Italy), gave inventors the exclusive rights to profit from their invention for a period of one year. The length of a patent grew over the centuries. In 1449 King Henry VI granted a 20-year patent to John Utynam, who brought colored glass-works to England. The holder of a patent collects royalties from those who use the patent. The term royalties carries the idea that money that would ordinarily go to the king is assigned to the patent holder.

The idea of copyright seems to descend from the settlement of sixth century Irish dispute over the copies of a book of psalms. King Diarmait reasoned, "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy." Basically, copyright guarantees that a book's creator owns the copies. In the United Kingdom, modern copyright was enacted by the Statute of Anne (Copyright Act of 1709). Every nation extends copyright protection to authors. Today, copyright protection extends to the form and content of the text and images and does not apply to particular ideas that might be expressed in the copyrighted work. Copyright protection lasts much longer than patent protection. In the U.S., Copyright persists 70 years after the death of author, unless the author is a corporation, in which case, copyright extends 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. As in the case of patents, royalties are paid to the copyright holder, in lieu of the king.

Scientists have used and abused intellectual property protection. A legal and popular method of bypassing the patent system is through "trade secret." If nobody knew your secret, your exclusive use of the property could be leveraged to your financial advantage. Nobody understood the concept of trade secret better than the surgeon William Chamberlen. Circa 1570 Chamberlen invented or acquired the design of an improved delivery forceps (tongs with large curved grasping handles that can be pressed together with a scissors action). The forceps was highly profitable to William and to his heirs. His son Peter became the attending physician to Queen Anne, the wife of James I and to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. The forceps kept the Chamberlen family in riches for over a century. A descendant fell upon hard times and sold the secret of the forceps in 1720 to Dutch surgeons. The forceps monopoly was broken when several of the new owners published the secret. A largely apathetic world paid little notice until the highly influential William Smellie published his description of the improved model of the forceps, in 1750. Because an intellectual property was kept secret, the world was deprived of a life-saving medical advancement for approximately 180 years (1).

[1] Strathern P. A brief history of medicine from Hippocrates to gene therapy. Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, pp 169-171, 2005.

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© 2010 Jules Berman

My book, Principles of Big Data: Preparing, Sharing, and Analyzing Complex Information was published in 2013 by Morgan Kaufmann.

I urge you to read a litte about my book. Google books has prepared a generous preview of the book contents. If you like the book, please request your librarian to purchase a copy of this book for your library or reading room.

tags: big data, metadata, data preparation, data analytics, data repurposing, datamining, data mining, history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD