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Defining Intellectual Property

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My question is essentially at what point can you say someone is violating IP rights? For example would it be proper to say a person can patent steel? Or would it only make sense to patent a particular steel with a particular name? If I were to analyze a particular product of steel and reverse engineer it, would it be proper to have any IP law prevent me from producing the chemically identical steel, provided I give it a new name?

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Intellectual property rights have to be defined in the context of a legal system, by reference to both the fact that the creator created it, and to the fact that the property is not tangible. IP is essentially divided into two kinds, patents and copyrights. You are talking about patents. No person can patent steel (in general) because they did not create it. You can properly patent a particular drug, i.e. a specific molecule, but this does not give you ownership of all creatable molecules with a similar of same effect, thus there can be two or more competing patented drugs that control the production of stomach acid. You can also patent a method of doing something (e.g. a method of sticking seeds in the ground). You cannot patent all methods of sticking seeds in the ground, or all molecules controlling the production of stomach acid.

The name of the product is irrelevant, though it is separately addressed under IP law, in the domain of trademarks. But you can have a trademark for a brand of a common (unpatentable) object like the hammer.

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You can also patent a method of doing something (e.g. a method of sticking seeds in the ground). You cannot patent all methods of sticking seeds in the ground, or all molecules controlling the production of stomach acid.

Say a person hundreds of miles away develops an extremely similar idea, as with what happened with the telephone. Would it be a violation of IP to produce an object that does the same thing that the patenter has already created, although probably made slightly differently? My confusion/question revolves more around the (proper) application of IP rights. If someone does patent a method of sticking seeds in the ground, what if I discovered the same method as well? Could I be stopped from using that same method even if I learned it from someone else? What specifically would it *mean* to have a patent? How can one decide when an idea is new, yet similar, and not a violation of any existing patent? Rand's essay on IP is all I've read about the Objectivist stance on IP.

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My question is essentially at what point can you say someone is violating IP rights? For example would it be proper to say a person can patent steel? Or would it only make sense to patent a particular steel with a particular name? If I were to analyze a particular product of steel and reverse engineer it, would it be proper to have any IP law prevent me from producing the chemically identical steel, provided I give it a new name?

Dr. Peikoff answered a similar question here. You may find it helpful.

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Would it be a violation of IP to produce an object that does the same thing that the patenter has already created, although probably made slightly differently?
A patent doesn't cover "what the thing does", it covers "what the thing is". (I'm leaving out, specifically, method patents). If you invent a specific zero-calorie molecule that tastes like cheese, then your intellectual property is that molecule, not all zero-calorie cheese-tasting molecules.
If someone does patent a method of sticking seeds in the ground, what if I discovered the same method as well?
I assume the guy patented it first; well, first come, first served. Similarly, if two men discover the same gold deposit, the first one to file the claim gets the right to the land.
What specifically would it *mean* to have a patent?
It means that you have the exclusive right to the invention for the period of the patent. It's the same with owning a house or a car: it's your property, and you can do what you want with it. In this case it's not just a specific physical token, but all tokens.
How can one decide when an idea is new, yet similar, and not a violation of any existing patent?
You do the research. Patents are public and on file at USPTO (and online), so you can simply look to see whether there is an existing patent.
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I assume the guy patented it first; well, first come, first served.

I was a little vague in my wording. I meant more along the lines "If I had figured out an already-patented method of seed planting on my own, could the patenter prosecute me for using the method without his consent?" It does not seem like it would be proper for the patenter to do anything to me, since all I've done is use my own mind in the same way the patenter did. I just couldn't claim that I came up with the idea, of course.

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It does not seem like it would be proper for the patenter to do anything to me, since all I've done is use my own mind in the same way the patenter did.
What it means to be someone else's intellectual property is that they own it. So it seems to me entirely proper that you respect his exclusive ownership right to the product of his mind. When a man uses his mind the same way the discoverer of gold does and re-discovers that same gold, we respect the property right of the first claimant. Why shouldn't we do that with a patent?
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I was a little vague in my wording. I meant more along the lines "If I had figured out an already-patented method of seed planting on my own, could the patenter prosecute me for using the method without his consent?" It does not seem like it would be proper for the patenter to do anything to me, since all I've done is use my own mind in the same way the patenter did. I just couldn't claim that I came up with the idea, of course.

From the USPTO website:

What Is a Patent?

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. Under certain circumstances, patent term extensions or adjustments may be available.

The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.

There are three types of patents:

1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;

2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and

3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

=========

One issue that needs to be explained is why intellectual property is necessary. Innovators need to benefit from their creative activity or they will have no incentive to innovate. However, innovation needs to progress in a timely fashion, without some inventors or companies holding extended monopolies on core technologies. A patent system balances the right of the inventor to benefit from their creations against the right of the next inventor to be allowed to improve the state of the art even further. That is why the patent has a delimited term, and increasingly onerous maintenance fees towards the end of that term.

An example of this need for balance so that every one benefits, is the story of medical forceps used it to safely extract a baby from its mother. For 180 years a single family used forceps they designed to deliver babies, but kept this technology a secret because it would not be to their benefit to let the world know how they performed this life saving service. If they let people know how they made their forceps, everybody would be making knockoffs, probably substandard ones at that.

Because there was no patent system available in the 16th century this family could not sell their forceps in public, which would have been a much wider market share, especially if they had a monopoly. But also if that monopoly was limited to say, 20 years like the current system, another inventor would be able to improve upon the design of forceps, and then be able to benefit for the next 20 years. So instead of keeping a life-saving technology a secret for 180 years, and only one family benefiting from a very limited market share, instead they could have had 20 years to sell their forceps all over Europe and elsewhere, and then for another 160 years eight other inventors would have a go at improving the technology. This is why intellectual property is necessary and proper. And you can thank Thomas Jefferson for devising the US patent system, which made our modern technological world possible.

I could say more, as IP is my field, but since I spent most of August rewriting my website (www.inventive-solutions.ca) I suggest you might want to look at some of the extensive material I have posted there.

<Φ>aj

Edited by aristotlejones
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What it means to be someone else's intellectual property is that they own it. So it seems to me entirely proper that you respect his exclusive ownership right to the product of his mind. When a man uses his mind the same way the discoverer of gold does and re-discovers that same gold, we respect the property right of the first claimant. Why shouldn't we do that with a patent?

Of course, just the same if I developed an method without any help from the patenter. It seems that I'd have the right to what I discovered by my own ability as well, and since I'm not using the same instance of property as the patenter. The idea as it stands for both of us wouldn't be identical unless I used his information and his schematics. But assuming the two of us (as in the patenter and me) are rational people, the actual means of doing it is exactly the same (as in their reasons for using the method are different, but the actions involved are identical).

I could never own all gold in a particular mountain, but I could own a particular vein of gold. I think my issue is more about "How specific should we go?" in defining how much claim people have to something. By using a vein of gold, I can claim ownership to that vein of gold, but I would not be using the *entire* vein of gold at once, so my labor isn't quite mixed into everything the first time I begin mining. I'm not claiming ownership on something so broad that it becomes ridiculous.

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It seems that I'd have the right to what I discovered by my own ability as well, and since I'm not using the same instance of property as the patenter. The idea as it stands for both of us wouldn't be identical unless I used his information and his schematics.
You don't patent ideas; the objective thing would be the same. If you can invent a thing that is different but achieves the same goal (reduction of stomach acid, for example), then you do have a right to that new and distinct thing as your own.
But assuming the two of us (as in the patenter and me) are rational people, the actual means of doing it is exactly the same (as in their reasons for using the method are different, but the actions involved are identical).
I assume you're saying that the concrete product is identical but the method of discovering / building that object is the same. So then, yes, if you independently discover ranitidine a month or a year after Hoechst Marion Roussel does, that's sad for you. You'll just have to go develop omeprazole.

You may be right that some patents are, in fact, too general, but that's a problem with the process of patenting and not the concept of intellectual property.

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