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Episode
159

Patents

May 18, 2021
How Stuff Works
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20
minutes
Entrepreneurship
Morality
Politics
Medicine
Inventions
Business

They are a legal device to encourage new inventions and protect inventors from copycats.

But how do they actually work, what good do they do, and what are the implications for the world in 2021?

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about patents. 

[00:00:27] Patents are a way for inventors, and for companies to protect their inventions for a fixed period.

[00:00:35] Exploring the idea of patents is fascinating, as it raises several questions: how to incentivise scientific and technological progress? 

[00:00:46] What actually is the value of an idea?

[00:00:49] Should we change these laws, and under what conditions, if millions of lives are at stake?

[00:00:56] I guess I should start by saying that this isn’t legal advice, but rather an exploration of this weird and wonderful world, with a few fun examples thrown in for good measure.

[00:01:10] Right, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

[00:01:14] We are all beneficiaries of the inventions of other people. 

[00:01:19] From the phone or computer you’re listening to this on through to the microwave oven, from the traffic light to the USB socket, our lives are infinitely better and easier thanks to the inventions of other people.

[00:01:34] It does seem strange to think that almost everything we use in our day to day lives was invented by someone, somewhere, and at some point in history.

[00:01:45] And in the vast majority of these cases–and we’ll come on to discuss several of these in due course–that person would have got a patent.

[00:01:55] The best way to think about what a patent is, and what it does, is to encourage society to keep inventing things.

[00:02:04] The idea goes something like this.

[00:02:07] An inventor, or a company, might spend many years, and in the case of a company, vast amounts of money developing an invention.

[00:02:17] Perhaps it's a new drug, perhaps it’s a new type of computer, or it might just be something a bit less life-changing.

[00:02:25] Let’s say it’s a device that scratches your back at the same time as it plays music.

[00:02:31] In all of these cases, there has been a large amount of time, effort, and money, or a combination of all of them, invested in this new invention.

[00:02:42] The person or the company wouldn’t like the idea that anyone can just come along and copy it. 

[00:02:48] A patent is the tool that protects them against this. 

[00:02:52] By the way, if I were American, I’d say ‘patent’, but let’s stick with the British pronunciation.

[00:02:59] So, I can apply for this marvellous patent, but what does it actually do?

[00:03:06] Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t actually stop people from copying me. 

[00:03:11] All it does is say that I have a legal right to go to court if someone else makes and sells my invention, for a period of typically from 10 to 30 years. 

[00:03:25] So, if I have invented this fantastic back-scratching device that also plays music, if I manage to get a patent for it, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make it, it just means that if you start making it and selling it, then I can take you to court and sue you. 

[00:03:44] The idea behind patents, the rationale for them existing, is so that the inventor is given a fixed period of time to allow them to make money from it. 

[00:03:55] A sort of time-limited monopoly on their invention.

[00:04:00] This is both to reward them for their invention, and also so that they can make enough money to reinvest in new research, to make new inventions, and for the world to generally be a better place.

[00:04:15] The other, related reason for patents is that they actually require the inventor, or the company applying for the patent, to provide very clear instructions about how someone else can make this object. 

[00:04:28] So, while on the one hand, it prevents, or at least discourages, other people from copying it for a fixed period, once that period of time is up, once it is finished, anyone can copy it relatively easily because they have the information about how to do so right there in the patent.

[00:04:52] This takes us very nicely on to two other points, firstly the origin of the patent, and secondly the law about how you can actually apply, and be awarded a patent.

[00:05:05] So, the origins.

[00:05:07] The word ‘patent’ comes from the Latin, patere, which means to ‘lay open’, or to make available for public inspection.

[00:05:16] This is exactly what a patent is doing. 

[00:05:19] It isn’t just saying “I have a special invention and you can’t make it”, it’s saying “this is my invention, this is exactly how it works, but you aren’t allowed to make it for a specified period of time”.

[00:05:33] Now, how do you actually get a patent? 

[00:05:36] What actually qualifies as being so new and special that it deserves the legal protection to not be copied?

[00:05:45] The law varies in different countries, and there are different types of patents, but for something to be patentable, for you to be able to get a patent, it generally needs to meet 5 different criteria.

[00:06:00] First, it must fit into a category of something that can be patented. Not everything can.

[00:06:07] New drugs, new tools, new types of software, even new business methods can be patented.

[00:06:14] Art, for example, can’t. 

[00:06:16] A theory can’t, and nor can any kind of abstract process.

[00:06:22] Secondly, it has to be new. 

[00:06:26] This might sound obvious, but you can’t patent something that is already known about. 

[00:06:32] Thirdly, it needs to be what’s called “inventive”. 

[00:06:36] It can’t be obvious to someone. 

[00:06:39] For example, you might say that my music-playing back-scratching tool is new and inventive, and that you wouldn’t have thought of it, or perhaps you wouldn't. 

[00:06:50] Fourthly, it needs to be what is defined as ‘useful’, but ‘useful’ here doesn’t mean what useful normally means. 

[00:07:00] It doesn’t mean that it has to be of great benefit for mankind, otherwise, my music-playing back-scratcher might not meet the criteria

[00:07:08] But rather, that you can show that it works, and it isn’t just an unproven theory. 

[00:07:15] I couldn’t, for example, patent a helicopter that can travel at 10,000km an hour if I have no way of explaining how I would actually get it to work. 

[00:07:27] It might be ‘useful’ in the traditional sense of the word, but it isn’t ‘useful’ in the patent sense, because I can’t show how to actually make it.

[00:07:37] And the final requirement,in the US at least, is that it has to be something that is new and hasn’t been on sale before, it hasn't been sold before. 

[00:07:49] So, these are the criteria that your invention normally needs to meet. 

[00:07:54] As you can see, there is quite a lot of room for interpretation. It’s certainly not black and white. 

[00:08:02] I should add that the process of getting a patent can be time-consuming and expensive, involving lots of lawyers and different fees

[00:08:12] So it’s not the sort of thing that you should do unless you know it’s going to be worth it.

[00:08:17] Indeed, these fees can easily be more than $10,000, and this is only to have the legal defence in case someone copies it.

[00:08:27] In the vast majority of cases, especially with smaller-time inventors who are convinced that their creation is going to make them a millionaire, they end up spending much more money on the patent application than their invention ever brings in sales. 

[00:08:43] And by vast majority, 97% of patents that are filed never actually get back the cost of filing the patent. 

[00:08:52] I can remember a colleague from an early job who was convinced that he had invented an amazing way to stop the wires for your headphones getting tangled in your pocket. 

[00:09:05] He spent thousands of dollars on a patent, and I don’t think he ever sold a single set of headphones. 

[00:09:12] Of course, with the arrival of wireless headphones, I think he’ll probably remain in the 97%.

[00:09:19] But when it comes to patents and making money, there are three main categories of people who make money from them.

[00:09:26] Firstly, the lawyers, of course. 

[00:09:29] Patent attorneys are expensive, and they will be very happy to help you file a patent, for a sizable fee, of course.

[00:09:38] Secondly, the large companies who are making groundbreaking discoveries, and need to patent their inventions to stop their competitors from stealing them, or who are buying patents from other companies. 

[00:09:50] Companies such as Google, Apple, or big pharmaceutical companies want to recoup the costs of their research.

[00:09:59] Other companies buy patents directly from an inventor, if they think they will be able to make more money from producing the product than the cost of paying for the patent.

[00:10:10] A great example of this is for a product that I’m sure you will have used at one point in your life, and perhaps you are even holding one now. 

[00:10:20] A man called Laszlo Biro sold his invention to the Bic company for today’s equivalent of $2 million dollars back in 1945.

[00:10:30] The invention? 

[00:10:32] The ballpoint pen, or the biro, or a bic. 

[00:10:36] It might have seemed like a good deal for Laszlo Biro, but it was an even better deal for Bic, which has gone on to sell over 100 billion pens, and benefited greatly from having this early advantage of the patent to sell these pens.

[00:10:54] Now our third category of people who make money from patents is a category that you might not expect. 

[00:11:01] This is the category of the ‘patent troll’.

[00:11:05] Now, a troll is a nasty animal that lives under a bridge and makes people pay for crossing it. 

[00:11:13] It has also become the term for an anonymous person who insults people on the internet.

[00:11:20] When it comes to patents, a troll is something very different, although perhaps nastier than the animal version and the internet version.

[00:11:30] A patent troll is normally an individual or a company who either creates or buys different patents, with the express intention of threatening other people and companies with lawsuits and making money that way.

[00:11:47] A patent troll company might own hundreds or thousands of patents, and wait until it sees a company with a vaguely similar invention to something that it already has a patent for.

[00:11:59] It sends this company threatening letters, saying that they have infringed on its patent, and that it will take them to court.

[00:12:07] The costs of going to court for a patent dispute are typically anywhere from 1 to 5 million dollars, in the US that is, and so these companies will typically settle, they will agree to not go to court, and they will agree to pay the patent troll to go away.

[00:12:28] Even if they know that they might win in court, they would rather pay a few hundred thousand dollars and avoid going to court than know that they would spend several million and have a court process that would take months or years to complete.

[00:12:44] You might think, is this really a problem?

[00:12:48] In the US it certainly is. 

[00:12:50] Patent trolls are estimated to cost US businesses 29 billion dollars every single year.

[00:12:58] In the EU patent trolls aren’t quite so much of a problem, because the legal system requires the side that loses to pay the other side’s legal fees. In the US, this isn’t the norm, and each side has to pay its own legal fees.

[00:13:15] This means that there is a much bigger disincentive to go to court in the US because even if you win the court case, you’ll still end up having to pay millions in legal fees.

[00:13:29] I should add that there are movements to try to change the legislation around patent trolls in the US, but they are moving pretty slowly. 

[00:13:38] By now I hope you will have a decent idea of what patents do, why they can be useful, and what some of the issues with patents can be.

[00:13:47] Now it’s time to explore the question of the justification for patents, and if there is ever a right to essentially waive the patent, to say “this time it doesn’t count, and anyone can copy my invention”.

[00:14:02] For things like new software, and–dare I say it, my musical back-scratcher –there isn’t really a case for it. 

[00:14:11] People and companies have invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in creating this invention, so it is only fair, the argument goes, that they are allowed to be the first ones to benefit from it.

[00:14:26] But what about when there is something that is so beneficial to mankind that people are dying because only one, or a handful of, companies can produce it?

[00:14:36] To give you a specific example, the COVID-19 vaccines.

[00:14:41] As it stands, these companies that invested in developing the vaccines have the right to patent them. 

[00:14:48] What is actually in the vaccines, and the manufacture of them is the relatively easy part, and companies all over the world could start to produce vaccines for their unvaccinated population and start the vaccination process.

[00:15:04] But they legally aren’t allowed to do it, so they have to wait.

[00:15:09] There is pressure from a variety of public health campaigners for governments to waive these patents, for them to allow other companies to copy the vaccine, to speed up the process.

[00:15:23] At the time of writing this episode, the UK is blocking this, as is the US.

[00:15:29] Of course, from a legal point of view, these pharmaceutical companies are doing nothing wrong. 

[00:15:36] AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are supplying the vaccine at the price it costs them to make it, they aren’t making a profit.

[00:15:45] But they have evidently invested a lot of money in developing it, so should they be allowed to have a monopoly on its production, even though from a public health point of view there would be a large benefit from allowing it to be produced all over the world?

[00:16:01] As it stands, many countries especially in the developing world, in the global south, will have to wait years for COVID vaccines, despite the technology already existing.

[00:16:13] For those that say that the patents should be waived, the argument is that this is a global health problem, not a national health problem. 

[00:16:22] A country isn’t safe until the world is safe, and thus there is a strong incentive to temporarily change the legislation to allow the manufacture of vaccines to be sped up.

[00:16:36] It should be said that just because something is invented it doesn’t need to be patented.

[00:16:42] Indeed one of the first polio vaccines, which was first used in 1954, wasn’t patented. 

[00:16:50] In an interview a year later, its creator, a man called Jonas Salk, was asked about it. 

[00:16:57] Why was there no patent for this vaccine that was going to go on to save tens of millions of lives, and could no doubt have made him and his company hundreds of millions of dollars?

[00:17:08] The interviewer asked him who owned the vaccine, and he responded, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

[00:17:19] Salk isn’t the only example of someone who has, in effect, donated their invention to the world, allowing anyone to use it and produce it.

[00:17:29] The World Wide Web, which was created by Tim Berners-Lee, has no patent. 

[00:17:35] Matches, which were first invented in the 1820s, had no patent.

[00:17:40] The emoticon, an invention that you perhaps might consider less important, also had no patent, as did the karaoke machine.

[00:17:50] These are all inventions that were given to the world free of charge, for anyone to start making right away. 

[00:17:58] And, so the argument goes, COVID vaccines should follow their lead.

[00:18:03] Patents might sound dry and boring, unless you are a lawyer, but when we unpack them, I think you’ll agree that they are fascinating. 

[00:18:12] Through patents, we ask ourselves questions about what ownership actually means, what actually is an invention, and how should we incentivise people to invent new technologies and create medicines that save lives. 

[00:18:28] Patents exist, theoretically speaking, to help all of us.

[00:18:32] They are, of course, imperfect. 

[00:18:34] The business of patent trolls is a dirty one indeed, and in many cases an invention isn’t just one person, or one company, but tens, hundreds, or thousands of people around the world all working towards a common goal.

[00:18:50] The question we need to ask ourselves is whether there are times that an invention is too important to be patented, and if so, whether now is one of those times.

[00:19:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the mysterious, but fascinating, world of Patents.

[00:19:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I know that we have some lawyers as members, and I wonder if we have any patent lawyers. If so, I would love to know what your professional opinion of this is. 

[00:19:29] And even if you aren’t a lawyer, I would love to know what you think. 

[00:19:33] Should the companies making the COVID-19 vaccines waive their patents on them, and allow for them to be mass-produced by anyone?

[00:19:43] Let’s get the conversation started. 

[00:19:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:54] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:00] I'm Alastair Budge. You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about patents. 

[00:00:27] Patents are a way for inventors, and for companies to protect their inventions for a fixed period.

[00:00:35] Exploring the idea of patents is fascinating, as it raises several questions: how to incentivise scientific and technological progress? 

[00:00:46] What actually is the value of an idea?

[00:00:49] Should we change these laws, and under what conditions, if millions of lives are at stake?

[00:00:56] I guess I should start by saying that this isn’t legal advice, but rather an exploration of this weird and wonderful world, with a few fun examples thrown in for good measure.

[00:01:10] Right, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

[00:01:14] We are all beneficiaries of the inventions of other people. 

[00:01:19] From the phone or computer you’re listening to this on through to the microwave oven, from the traffic light to the USB socket, our lives are infinitely better and easier thanks to the inventions of other people.

[00:01:34] It does seem strange to think that almost everything we use in our day to day lives was invented by someone, somewhere, and at some point in history.

[00:01:45] And in the vast majority of these cases–and we’ll come on to discuss several of these in due course–that person would have got a patent.

[00:01:55] The best way to think about what a patent is, and what it does, is to encourage society to keep inventing things.

[00:02:04] The idea goes something like this.

[00:02:07] An inventor, or a company, might spend many years, and in the case of a company, vast amounts of money developing an invention.

[00:02:17] Perhaps it's a new drug, perhaps it’s a new type of computer, or it might just be something a bit less life-changing.

[00:02:25] Let’s say it’s a device that scratches your back at the same time as it plays music.

[00:02:31] In all of these cases, there has been a large amount of time, effort, and money, or a combination of all of them, invested in this new invention.

[00:02:42] The person or the company wouldn’t like the idea that anyone can just come along and copy it. 

[00:02:48] A patent is the tool that protects them against this. 

[00:02:52] By the way, if I were American, I’d say ‘patent’, but let’s stick with the British pronunciation.

[00:02:59] So, I can apply for this marvellous patent, but what does it actually do?

[00:03:06] Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t actually stop people from copying me. 

[00:03:11] All it does is say that I have a legal right to go to court if someone else makes and sells my invention, for a period of typically from 10 to 30 years. 

[00:03:25] So, if I have invented this fantastic back-scratching device that also plays music, if I manage to get a patent for it, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make it, it just means that if you start making it and selling it, then I can take you to court and sue you. 

[00:03:44] The idea behind patents, the rationale for them existing, is so that the inventor is given a fixed period of time to allow them to make money from it. 

[00:03:55] A sort of time-limited monopoly on their invention.

[00:04:00] This is both to reward them for their invention, and also so that they can make enough money to reinvest in new research, to make new inventions, and for the world to generally be a better place.

[00:04:15] The other, related reason for patents is that they actually require the inventor, or the company applying for the patent, to provide very clear instructions about how someone else can make this object. 

[00:04:28] So, while on the one hand, it prevents, or at least discourages, other people from copying it for a fixed period, once that period of time is up, once it is finished, anyone can copy it relatively easily because they have the information about how to do so right there in the patent.

[00:04:52] This takes us very nicely on to two other points, firstly the origin of the patent, and secondly the law about how you can actually apply, and be awarded a patent.

[00:05:05] So, the origins.

[00:05:07] The word ‘patent’ comes from the Latin, patere, which means to ‘lay open’, or to make available for public inspection.

[00:05:16] This is exactly what a patent is doing. 

[00:05:19] It isn’t just saying “I have a special invention and you can’t make it”, it’s saying “this is my invention, this is exactly how it works, but you aren’t allowed to make it for a specified period of time”.

[00:05:33] Now, how do you actually get a patent? 

[00:05:36] What actually qualifies as being so new and special that it deserves the legal protection to not be copied?

[00:05:45] The law varies in different countries, and there are different types of patents, but for something to be patentable, for you to be able to get a patent, it generally needs to meet 5 different criteria.

[00:06:00] First, it must fit into a category of something that can be patented. Not everything can.

[00:06:07] New drugs, new tools, new types of software, even new business methods can be patented.

[00:06:14] Art, for example, can’t. 

[00:06:16] A theory can’t, and nor can any kind of abstract process.

[00:06:22] Secondly, it has to be new. 

[00:06:26] This might sound obvious, but you can’t patent something that is already known about. 

[00:06:32] Thirdly, it needs to be what’s called “inventive”. 

[00:06:36] It can’t be obvious to someone. 

[00:06:39] For example, you might say that my music-playing back-scratching tool is new and inventive, and that you wouldn’t have thought of it, or perhaps you wouldn't. 

[00:06:50] Fourthly, it needs to be what is defined as ‘useful’, but ‘useful’ here doesn’t mean what useful normally means. 

[00:07:00] It doesn’t mean that it has to be of great benefit for mankind, otherwise, my music-playing back-scratcher might not meet the criteria

[00:07:08] But rather, that you can show that it works, and it isn’t just an unproven theory. 

[00:07:15] I couldn’t, for example, patent a helicopter that can travel at 10,000km an hour if I have no way of explaining how I would actually get it to work. 

[00:07:27] It might be ‘useful’ in the traditional sense of the word, but it isn’t ‘useful’ in the patent sense, because I can’t show how to actually make it.

[00:07:37] And the final requirement,in the US at least, is that it has to be something that is new and hasn’t been on sale before, it hasn't been sold before. 

[00:07:49] So, these are the criteria that your invention normally needs to meet. 

[00:07:54] As you can see, there is quite a lot of room for interpretation. It’s certainly not black and white. 

[00:08:02] I should add that the process of getting a patent can be time-consuming and expensive, involving lots of lawyers and different fees

[00:08:12] So it’s not the sort of thing that you should do unless you know it’s going to be worth it.

[00:08:17] Indeed, these fees can easily be more than $10,000, and this is only to have the legal defence in case someone copies it.

[00:08:27] In the vast majority of cases, especially with smaller-time inventors who are convinced that their creation is going to make them a millionaire, they end up spending much more money on the patent application than their invention ever brings in sales. 

[00:08:43] And by vast majority, 97% of patents that are filed never actually get back the cost of filing the patent. 

[00:08:52] I can remember a colleague from an early job who was convinced that he had invented an amazing way to stop the wires for your headphones getting tangled in your pocket. 

[00:09:05] He spent thousands of dollars on a patent, and I don’t think he ever sold a single set of headphones. 

[00:09:12] Of course, with the arrival of wireless headphones, I think he’ll probably remain in the 97%.

[00:09:19] But when it comes to patents and making money, there are three main categories of people who make money from them.

[00:09:26] Firstly, the lawyers, of course. 

[00:09:29] Patent attorneys are expensive, and they will be very happy to help you file a patent, for a sizable fee, of course.

[00:09:38] Secondly, the large companies who are making groundbreaking discoveries, and need to patent their inventions to stop their competitors from stealing them, or who are buying patents from other companies. 

[00:09:50] Companies such as Google, Apple, or big pharmaceutical companies want to recoup the costs of their research.

[00:09:59] Other companies buy patents directly from an inventor, if they think they will be able to make more money from producing the product than the cost of paying for the patent.

[00:10:10] A great example of this is for a product that I’m sure you will have used at one point in your life, and perhaps you are even holding one now. 

[00:10:20] A man called Laszlo Biro sold his invention to the Bic company for today’s equivalent of $2 million dollars back in 1945.

[00:10:30] The invention? 

[00:10:32] The ballpoint pen, or the biro, or a bic. 

[00:10:36] It might have seemed like a good deal for Laszlo Biro, but it was an even better deal for Bic, which has gone on to sell over 100 billion pens, and benefited greatly from having this early advantage of the patent to sell these pens.

[00:10:54] Now our third category of people who make money from patents is a category that you might not expect. 

[00:11:01] This is the category of the ‘patent troll’.

[00:11:05] Now, a troll is a nasty animal that lives under a bridge and makes people pay for crossing it. 

[00:11:13] It has also become the term for an anonymous person who insults people on the internet.

[00:11:20] When it comes to patents, a troll is something very different, although perhaps nastier than the animal version and the internet version.

[00:11:30] A patent troll is normally an individual or a company who either creates or buys different patents, with the express intention of threatening other people and companies with lawsuits and making money that way.

[00:11:47] A patent troll company might own hundreds or thousands of patents, and wait until it sees a company with a vaguely similar invention to something that it already has a patent for.

[00:11:59] It sends this company threatening letters, saying that they have infringed on its patent, and that it will take them to court.

[00:12:07] The costs of going to court for a patent dispute are typically anywhere from 1 to 5 million dollars, in the US that is, and so these companies will typically settle, they will agree to not go to court, and they will agree to pay the patent troll to go away.

[00:12:28] Even if they know that they might win in court, they would rather pay a few hundred thousand dollars and avoid going to court than know that they would spend several million and have a court process that would take months or years to complete.

[00:12:44] You might think, is this really a problem?

[00:12:48] In the US it certainly is. 

[00:12:50] Patent trolls are estimated to cost US businesses 29 billion dollars every single year.

[00:12:58] In the EU patent trolls aren’t quite so much of a problem, because the legal system requires the side that loses to pay the other side’s legal fees. In the US, this isn’t the norm, and each side has to pay its own legal fees.

[00:13:15] This means that there is a much bigger disincentive to go to court in the US because even if you win the court case, you’ll still end up having to pay millions in legal fees.

[00:13:29] I should add that there are movements to try to change the legislation around patent trolls in the US, but they are moving pretty slowly. 

[00:13:38] By now I hope you will have a decent idea of what patents do, why they can be useful, and what some of the issues with patents can be.

[00:13:47] Now it’s time to explore the question of the justification for patents, and if there is ever a right to essentially waive the patent, to say “this time it doesn’t count, and anyone can copy my invention”.

[00:14:02] For things like new software, and–dare I say it, my musical back-scratcher –there isn’t really a case for it. 

[00:14:11] People and companies have invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in creating this invention, so it is only fair, the argument goes, that they are allowed to be the first ones to benefit from it.

[00:14:26] But what about when there is something that is so beneficial to mankind that people are dying because only one, or a handful of, companies can produce it?

[00:14:36] To give you a specific example, the COVID-19 vaccines.

[00:14:41] As it stands, these companies that invested in developing the vaccines have the right to patent them. 

[00:14:48] What is actually in the vaccines, and the manufacture of them is the relatively easy part, and companies all over the world could start to produce vaccines for their unvaccinated population and start the vaccination process.

[00:15:04] But they legally aren’t allowed to do it, so they have to wait.

[00:15:09] There is pressure from a variety of public health campaigners for governments to waive these patents, for them to allow other companies to copy the vaccine, to speed up the process.

[00:15:23] At the time of writing this episode, the UK is blocking this, as is the US.

[00:15:29] Of course, from a legal point of view, these pharmaceutical companies are doing nothing wrong. 

[00:15:36] AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are supplying the vaccine at the price it costs them to make it, they aren’t making a profit.

[00:15:45] But they have evidently invested a lot of money in developing it, so should they be allowed to have a monopoly on its production, even though from a public health point of view there would be a large benefit from allowing it to be produced all over the world?

[00:16:01] As it stands, many countries especially in the developing world, in the global south, will have to wait years for COVID vaccines, despite the technology already existing.

[00:16:13] For those that say that the patents should be waived, the argument is that this is a global health problem, not a national health problem. 

[00:16:22] A country isn’t safe until the world is safe, and thus there is a strong incentive to temporarily change the legislation to allow the manufacture of vaccines to be sped up.

[00:16:36] It should be said that just because something is invented it doesn’t need to be patented.

[00:16:42] Indeed one of the first polio vaccines, which was first used in 1954, wasn’t patented. 

[00:16:50] In an interview a year later, its creator, a man called Jonas Salk, was asked about it. 

[00:16:57] Why was there no patent for this vaccine that was going to go on to save tens of millions of lives, and could no doubt have made him and his company hundreds of millions of dollars?

[00:17:08] The interviewer asked him who owned the vaccine, and he responded, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

[00:17:19] Salk isn’t the only example of someone who has, in effect, donated their invention to the world, allowing anyone to use it and produce it.

[00:17:29] The World Wide Web, which was created by Tim Berners-Lee, has no patent. 

[00:17:35] Matches, which were first invented in the 1820s, had no patent.

[00:17:40] The emoticon, an invention that you perhaps might consider less important, also had no patent, as did the karaoke machine.

[00:17:50] These are all inventions that were given to the world free of charge, for anyone to start making right away. 

[00:17:58] And, so the argument goes, COVID vaccines should follow their lead.

[00:18:03] Patents might sound dry and boring, unless you are a lawyer, but when we unpack them, I think you’ll agree that they are fascinating. 

[00:18:12] Through patents, we ask ourselves questions about what ownership actually means, what actually is an invention, and how should we incentivise people to invent new technologies and create medicines that save lives. 

[00:18:28] Patents exist, theoretically speaking, to help all of us.

[00:18:32] They are, of course, imperfect. 

[00:18:34] The business of patent trolls is a dirty one indeed, and in many cases an invention isn’t just one person, or one company, but tens, hundreds, or thousands of people around the world all working towards a common goal.

[00:18:50] The question we need to ask ourselves is whether there are times that an invention is too important to be patented, and if so, whether now is one of those times.

[00:19:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the mysterious, but fascinating, world of Patents.

[00:19:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I know that we have some lawyers as members, and I wonder if we have any patent lawyers. If so, I would love to know what your professional opinion of this is. 

[00:19:29] And even if you aren’t a lawyer, I would love to know what you think. 

[00:19:33] Should the companies making the COVID-19 vaccines waive their patents on them, and allow for them to be mass-produced by anyone?

[00:19:43] Let’s get the conversation started. 

[00:19:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:54] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:00] I'm Alastair Budge. You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about patents. 

[00:00:27] Patents are a way for inventors, and for companies to protect their inventions for a fixed period.

[00:00:35] Exploring the idea of patents is fascinating, as it raises several questions: how to incentivise scientific and technological progress? 

[00:00:46] What actually is the value of an idea?

[00:00:49] Should we change these laws, and under what conditions, if millions of lives are at stake?

[00:00:56] I guess I should start by saying that this isn’t legal advice, but rather an exploration of this weird and wonderful world, with a few fun examples thrown in for good measure.

[00:01:10] Right, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

[00:01:14] We are all beneficiaries of the inventions of other people. 

[00:01:19] From the phone or computer you’re listening to this on through to the microwave oven, from the traffic light to the USB socket, our lives are infinitely better and easier thanks to the inventions of other people.

[00:01:34] It does seem strange to think that almost everything we use in our day to day lives was invented by someone, somewhere, and at some point in history.

[00:01:45] And in the vast majority of these cases–and we’ll come on to discuss several of these in due course–that person would have got a patent.

[00:01:55] The best way to think about what a patent is, and what it does, is to encourage society to keep inventing things.

[00:02:04] The idea goes something like this.

[00:02:07] An inventor, or a company, might spend many years, and in the case of a company, vast amounts of money developing an invention.

[00:02:17] Perhaps it's a new drug, perhaps it’s a new type of computer, or it might just be something a bit less life-changing.

[00:02:25] Let’s say it’s a device that scratches your back at the same time as it plays music.

[00:02:31] In all of these cases, there has been a large amount of time, effort, and money, or a combination of all of them, invested in this new invention.

[00:02:42] The person or the company wouldn’t like the idea that anyone can just come along and copy it. 

[00:02:48] A patent is the tool that protects them against this. 

[00:02:52] By the way, if I were American, I’d say ‘patent’, but let’s stick with the British pronunciation.

[00:02:59] So, I can apply for this marvellous patent, but what does it actually do?

[00:03:06] Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t actually stop people from copying me. 

[00:03:11] All it does is say that I have a legal right to go to court if someone else makes and sells my invention, for a period of typically from 10 to 30 years. 

[00:03:25] So, if I have invented this fantastic back-scratching device that also plays music, if I manage to get a patent for it, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make it, it just means that if you start making it and selling it, then I can take you to court and sue you. 

[00:03:44] The idea behind patents, the rationale for them existing, is so that the inventor is given a fixed period of time to allow them to make money from it. 

[00:03:55] A sort of time-limited monopoly on their invention.

[00:04:00] This is both to reward them for their invention, and also so that they can make enough money to reinvest in new research, to make new inventions, and for the world to generally be a better place.

[00:04:15] The other, related reason for patents is that they actually require the inventor, or the company applying for the patent, to provide very clear instructions about how someone else can make this object. 

[00:04:28] So, while on the one hand, it prevents, or at least discourages, other people from copying it for a fixed period, once that period of time is up, once it is finished, anyone can copy it relatively easily because they have the information about how to do so right there in the patent.

[00:04:52] This takes us very nicely on to two other points, firstly the origin of the patent, and secondly the law about how you can actually apply, and be awarded a patent.

[00:05:05] So, the origins.

[00:05:07] The word ‘patent’ comes from the Latin, patere, which means to ‘lay open’, or to make available for public inspection.

[00:05:16] This is exactly what a patent is doing. 

[00:05:19] It isn’t just saying “I have a special invention and you can’t make it”, it’s saying “this is my invention, this is exactly how it works, but you aren’t allowed to make it for a specified period of time”.

[00:05:33] Now, how do you actually get a patent? 

[00:05:36] What actually qualifies as being so new and special that it deserves the legal protection to not be copied?

[00:05:45] The law varies in different countries, and there are different types of patents, but for something to be patentable, for you to be able to get a patent, it generally needs to meet 5 different criteria.

[00:06:00] First, it must fit into a category of something that can be patented. Not everything can.

[00:06:07] New drugs, new tools, new types of software, even new business methods can be patented.

[00:06:14] Art, for example, can’t. 

[00:06:16] A theory can’t, and nor can any kind of abstract process.

[00:06:22] Secondly, it has to be new. 

[00:06:26] This might sound obvious, but you can’t patent something that is already known about. 

[00:06:32] Thirdly, it needs to be what’s called “inventive”. 

[00:06:36] It can’t be obvious to someone. 

[00:06:39] For example, you might say that my music-playing back-scratching tool is new and inventive, and that you wouldn’t have thought of it, or perhaps you wouldn't. 

[00:06:50] Fourthly, it needs to be what is defined as ‘useful’, but ‘useful’ here doesn’t mean what useful normally means. 

[00:07:00] It doesn’t mean that it has to be of great benefit for mankind, otherwise, my music-playing back-scratcher might not meet the criteria

[00:07:08] But rather, that you can show that it works, and it isn’t just an unproven theory. 

[00:07:15] I couldn’t, for example, patent a helicopter that can travel at 10,000km an hour if I have no way of explaining how I would actually get it to work. 

[00:07:27] It might be ‘useful’ in the traditional sense of the word, but it isn’t ‘useful’ in the patent sense, because I can’t show how to actually make it.

[00:07:37] And the final requirement,in the US at least, is that it has to be something that is new and hasn’t been on sale before, it hasn't been sold before. 

[00:07:49] So, these are the criteria that your invention normally needs to meet. 

[00:07:54] As you can see, there is quite a lot of room for interpretation. It’s certainly not black and white. 

[00:08:02] I should add that the process of getting a patent can be time-consuming and expensive, involving lots of lawyers and different fees

[00:08:12] So it’s not the sort of thing that you should do unless you know it’s going to be worth it.

[00:08:17] Indeed, these fees can easily be more than $10,000, and this is only to have the legal defence in case someone copies it.

[00:08:27] In the vast majority of cases, especially with smaller-time inventors who are convinced that their creation is going to make them a millionaire, they end up spending much more money on the patent application than their invention ever brings in sales. 

[00:08:43] And by vast majority, 97% of patents that are filed never actually get back the cost of filing the patent. 

[00:08:52] I can remember a colleague from an early job who was convinced that he had invented an amazing way to stop the wires for your headphones getting tangled in your pocket. 

[00:09:05] He spent thousands of dollars on a patent, and I don’t think he ever sold a single set of headphones. 

[00:09:12] Of course, with the arrival of wireless headphones, I think he’ll probably remain in the 97%.

[00:09:19] But when it comes to patents and making money, there are three main categories of people who make money from them.

[00:09:26] Firstly, the lawyers, of course. 

[00:09:29] Patent attorneys are expensive, and they will be very happy to help you file a patent, for a sizable fee, of course.

[00:09:38] Secondly, the large companies who are making groundbreaking discoveries, and need to patent their inventions to stop their competitors from stealing them, or who are buying patents from other companies. 

[00:09:50] Companies such as Google, Apple, or big pharmaceutical companies want to recoup the costs of their research.

[00:09:59] Other companies buy patents directly from an inventor, if they think they will be able to make more money from producing the product than the cost of paying for the patent.

[00:10:10] A great example of this is for a product that I’m sure you will have used at one point in your life, and perhaps you are even holding one now. 

[00:10:20] A man called Laszlo Biro sold his invention to the Bic company for today’s equivalent of $2 million dollars back in 1945.

[00:10:30] The invention? 

[00:10:32] The ballpoint pen, or the biro, or a bic. 

[00:10:36] It might have seemed like a good deal for Laszlo Biro, but it was an even better deal for Bic, which has gone on to sell over 100 billion pens, and benefited greatly from having this early advantage of the patent to sell these pens.

[00:10:54] Now our third category of people who make money from patents is a category that you might not expect. 

[00:11:01] This is the category of the ‘patent troll’.

[00:11:05] Now, a troll is a nasty animal that lives under a bridge and makes people pay for crossing it. 

[00:11:13] It has also become the term for an anonymous person who insults people on the internet.

[00:11:20] When it comes to patents, a troll is something very different, although perhaps nastier than the animal version and the internet version.

[00:11:30] A patent troll is normally an individual or a company who either creates or buys different patents, with the express intention of threatening other people and companies with lawsuits and making money that way.

[00:11:47] A patent troll company might own hundreds or thousands of patents, and wait until it sees a company with a vaguely similar invention to something that it already has a patent for.

[00:11:59] It sends this company threatening letters, saying that they have infringed on its patent, and that it will take them to court.

[00:12:07] The costs of going to court for a patent dispute are typically anywhere from 1 to 5 million dollars, in the US that is, and so these companies will typically settle, they will agree to not go to court, and they will agree to pay the patent troll to go away.

[00:12:28] Even if they know that they might win in court, they would rather pay a few hundred thousand dollars and avoid going to court than know that they would spend several million and have a court process that would take months or years to complete.

[00:12:44] You might think, is this really a problem?

[00:12:48] In the US it certainly is. 

[00:12:50] Patent trolls are estimated to cost US businesses 29 billion dollars every single year.

[00:12:58] In the EU patent trolls aren’t quite so much of a problem, because the legal system requires the side that loses to pay the other side’s legal fees. In the US, this isn’t the norm, and each side has to pay its own legal fees.

[00:13:15] This means that there is a much bigger disincentive to go to court in the US because even if you win the court case, you’ll still end up having to pay millions in legal fees.

[00:13:29] I should add that there are movements to try to change the legislation around patent trolls in the US, but they are moving pretty slowly. 

[00:13:38] By now I hope you will have a decent idea of what patents do, why they can be useful, and what some of the issues with patents can be.

[00:13:47] Now it’s time to explore the question of the justification for patents, and if there is ever a right to essentially waive the patent, to say “this time it doesn’t count, and anyone can copy my invention”.

[00:14:02] For things like new software, and–dare I say it, my musical back-scratcher –there isn’t really a case for it. 

[00:14:11] People and companies have invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in creating this invention, so it is only fair, the argument goes, that they are allowed to be the first ones to benefit from it.

[00:14:26] But what about when there is something that is so beneficial to mankind that people are dying because only one, or a handful of, companies can produce it?

[00:14:36] To give you a specific example, the COVID-19 vaccines.

[00:14:41] As it stands, these companies that invested in developing the vaccines have the right to patent them. 

[00:14:48] What is actually in the vaccines, and the manufacture of them is the relatively easy part, and companies all over the world could start to produce vaccines for their unvaccinated population and start the vaccination process.

[00:15:04] But they legally aren’t allowed to do it, so they have to wait.

[00:15:09] There is pressure from a variety of public health campaigners for governments to waive these patents, for them to allow other companies to copy the vaccine, to speed up the process.

[00:15:23] At the time of writing this episode, the UK is blocking this, as is the US.

[00:15:29] Of course, from a legal point of view, these pharmaceutical companies are doing nothing wrong. 

[00:15:36] AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are supplying the vaccine at the price it costs them to make it, they aren’t making a profit.

[00:15:45] But they have evidently invested a lot of money in developing it, so should they be allowed to have a monopoly on its production, even though from a public health point of view there would be a large benefit from allowing it to be produced all over the world?

[00:16:01] As it stands, many countries especially in the developing world, in the global south, will have to wait years for COVID vaccines, despite the technology already existing.

[00:16:13] For those that say that the patents should be waived, the argument is that this is a global health problem, not a national health problem. 

[00:16:22] A country isn’t safe until the world is safe, and thus there is a strong incentive to temporarily change the legislation to allow the manufacture of vaccines to be sped up.

[00:16:36] It should be said that just because something is invented it doesn’t need to be patented.

[00:16:42] Indeed one of the first polio vaccines, which was first used in 1954, wasn’t patented. 

[00:16:50] In an interview a year later, its creator, a man called Jonas Salk, was asked about it. 

[00:16:57] Why was there no patent for this vaccine that was going to go on to save tens of millions of lives, and could no doubt have made him and his company hundreds of millions of dollars?

[00:17:08] The interviewer asked him who owned the vaccine, and he responded, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

[00:17:19] Salk isn’t the only example of someone who has, in effect, donated their invention to the world, allowing anyone to use it and produce it.

[00:17:29] The World Wide Web, which was created by Tim Berners-Lee, has no patent. 

[00:17:35] Matches, which were first invented in the 1820s, had no patent.

[00:17:40] The emoticon, an invention that you perhaps might consider less important, also had no patent, as did the karaoke machine.

[00:17:50] These are all inventions that were given to the world free of charge, for anyone to start making right away. 

[00:17:58] And, so the argument goes, COVID vaccines should follow their lead.

[00:18:03] Patents might sound dry and boring, unless you are a lawyer, but when we unpack them, I think you’ll agree that they are fascinating. 

[00:18:12] Through patents, we ask ourselves questions about what ownership actually means, what actually is an invention, and how should we incentivise people to invent new technologies and create medicines that save lives. 

[00:18:28] Patents exist, theoretically speaking, to help all of us.

[00:18:32] They are, of course, imperfect. 

[00:18:34] The business of patent trolls is a dirty one indeed, and in many cases an invention isn’t just one person, or one company, but tens, hundreds, or thousands of people around the world all working towards a common goal.

[00:18:50] The question we need to ask ourselves is whether there are times that an invention is too important to be patented, and if so, whether now is one of those times.

[00:19:03] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the mysterious, but fascinating, world of Patents.

[00:19:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:16] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. I know that we have some lawyers as members, and I wonder if we have any patent lawyers. If so, I would love to know what your professional opinion of this is. 

[00:19:29] And even if you aren’t a lawyer, I would love to know what you think. 

[00:19:33] Should the companies making the COVID-19 vaccines waive their patents on them, and allow for them to be mass-produced by anyone?

[00:19:43] Let’s get the conversation started. 

[00:19:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:54] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:00] I'm Alastair Budge. You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]