Intellectual property as a concept — the notion that ideas can be protected by their creators for the purpose of exclusive profit — is one that is central to the construction of capitalism as we know it both here in the United States and throughout much of the world. Businesses exist on the idea that they can offer something unique to consumers, something that must be guarded jealously, and the government does its part in offering legal protection to prevent infringement, lest the system fall apart. Like any ideology, it loses luster as it moves towards an extreme end point (in this case, hyper-protectionism beyond reasonable reading of the laws) but remains so embedded that the idea of significant change becomes harder with every passing day. Could that commitment to the IP status quo ultimately be our undoing?
That's the question posed by Kate Aronoff in The New Republic, in an article luridly titled "America's Deadly Obsession With Intellectual Property". In it, Aronoff, makes the case that our commitment to an absolutist view of intellectual property rights, and a broader corporatism, could serve as the avaricious petard upon which we are eventually foisted. She points to the COVID-19 and climate crises as existential threats that require a broad response across both governments and the private sector and a willingness to forego maximal profits for the sake of both human life and the planet.
The piece cites America's unwillingness to bend on proposals to open any patents for a COVID-19 vaccine up to being copied in poor and developing countries, clearly banking on the U.S. being first to the post in creating a vaccine and clearing any roadblocks to that firm charging obscene amounts for needed treatments. (Anyone banking on public pressure or basic decency to keep prices in check would do well to remind themselves of Martin Shkreli.)
Climate change requires similar dramatic action to forestall dire consequences, and yet everything about our current system suggests profit will remain the guiding principle for most tech firms in the clean energy space. Companies want investors, and both investors and firms want profit, and in a competitive marketplace, unilaterally disarming by opening up crucial patents is courting its own disaster.
Pundits have mooted that both of these crises require a "moonshot": a sustained effort across the government and private industries towards a goal of national importance, with cost of no concern. The actual moonshot was about nothing more than national pride in beating the Soviet Union in the space race, and yet for an actual emergency no such spirit exists. It may yet be the case that some company may yet go the route of Jonas Salk, but it remains more likely that he now stands as a cautionary tale to those firms who see the polio vaccine as a missed revenue stream rather than a world-altering creation.