Friday, February 10, 2006

Of patents and science and mice and men

Just read reader-excerpts from Robert Merges's article "Property Rights and the Commons: The Case of Scientific Research."

I don't know anything about patents. Can you use a patented item without paying a fee if you do so for noncommercial purposes? If you can't then science has a problem.

As scientists--especially biologists--begin to patent everything from glowing mice to exploding goldfish, and the commons becomes cluttered with grubstakes, are future scientists are faced with a domesticated nature from which too much has been seized, not leaving as much and as good for those who come behind? Or does the expanding universe of science mean that we can inflate away most previous property seizures by just creating entirely new frontiers of science past which we can send grad-student settlers?

If the former, why not come up with a new "science patent"? Any lab can use the item without paying a fee for noncomm purposes. But anyone who turns it around for cash needs to pay up. Would it be hard to distinguish between scientific discoveries and direct-to-QVC products like the Carbolic Smokeball?

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