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The paradox of property

Lori Foley
By Lori Foley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
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The Spice Girls took time out of their busy "prancing and vamping" schedules in 2001 to push for legislation that would impose stiffer penalties on those who illegally copied their work in the European Union.

That's right, a British pop group of dubious talent joined the ranks of Microsoft executives and Nobel laureates in their concern about the role of intellectual property and its dissemination. Technology sure makes strange bedfellows.

So, what did the Spice Girls really, really want? Some control over a product into which they'd put time, work and capital. And they're certainly not alone. Innovators and scientists worldwide also want to ensure that they'll be compensated for the "intellectual products" they've created.

However, concern is growing that the mechanisms by which this compensation is ensured - intellectual property laws - actually impede the very innovation they attempt to reward.

It's up to us to demand that the way rights are protected does not inhibit future research - or future solutions.

Ideas can stagnate in the system designed to protect them, as patents lasting decades arrest work on world problems. How we respond to the dilemma of intellectual property rights will be one of the defining challenges of our generation.

Intellectual property rights will be one of the definining challenges of our generation.

As information becomes proprietary, it's used to enrich the private sector - sometimes to the detriment of the public sector. Because corporations frequently own the patents to ideas themselves, they become unusable in projects for the public welfare, except at the behest of their owners.

The predicament is evident on our own campus. Rich Jorgensen, an associate professor in the department of plant sciences who was a pioneer in the development of a new technique of genetic manipulation called "gene silencing," provides an excellent example.

The future applications of Jorgensen's work are varied and promising, with some scientists even hoping to use it to "turn off" the genes that cause cancer. However, the proprietary rights that clutter the research field make actually applying his work difficult.

"You and I couldn't start a company to engineer some healthy food plant," he explained (in a magnanimous offer of partnership, given the fact that I had just attempted to "scientifically" explain my cell phone's bad reception as a result of "my computer shooting off rays or something,"), "because we'd need a contract from Monsanto or DuPont" or any of the other large conglomerates that rule the food production industry with their extensive network of patents.

So, even if we developed a food plant that could help combat hunger around the world, we'd have to play the corporate game to navigate the complex maze of patents and proprietary information. We'd need the help of corporate suits, which they're generally loath to offer without major financial incentives.

This is bad news. It reflects the difficultly of innovating new products that could help solve huge problems, like hunger and disease in the Third World, for which there isn't major financial demand or incentives.

We certainly can't fault big business for seeking profits. And this pursuit of profit has undoubtedly led to the solutions for many important problems. But it has also slowed work on others. To appropriately respond to this issue, we need not to levy our criticisms against corporations' actions in the current system, but against the system itself.

We're at a crossroads right now. Over the past century, the average length of a patent in the U.S. has almost doubled. We're getting more possessive of our information.

But at the same time, we've seen the development of collaborative projects, such as open source software, that have taken technology to new heights as individuals share ideas unconstrained by the restrictions that intellectual property rights create.

These developments give hope. But the fact remains that we can't meet the challenges faced by the world population with our best ideas and research trapped in confining and long-term "protective measures" controlled solely by corporate powers. It's time for shorter patents and more specific limits on their application.

The future of intellectual property rights is our problem to solve today, or it will be our crisis tomorrow.

Lori Foley is a senior majoring in French and English. She can be reached at

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