The New York Times has a story entitled “Who owns your great idea”. The article contains a glaring error and an bizarre omission.
First the error.
Its strange to me that a publication which usually sets a relatively high standard, at least in respect to facts, so casually contributes to the misperception that ideas can be owned. Even the lawyers representing rent seeking corporations will be quick to make clear one of the fundamental rules of intellectual property law, that the law grants rights over expressions of ideas and not ideas themselves.
Its also strange because the journalist who wrote the piece apparently writes on entrepreneurship and higher education, so that one would expect her to have been aware of such a basic principle.
Thats a factual mistake though, and possibly at least partially due to the erroneous statements of the universities technology transfer office that the university owns the “idea” of two undergraduate students while the rights to the design vest in the students. Exactly what right is the university claiming; patent, trademark or copyright (it can’t be design since thats already been conceded to the students).
So what story did NYT miss?
The article recounts that undergraduate students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were given a challenge by their professor to solve a social problem. The students wanted to do exactly that, help people in the developing world. They wanted to address the problem of plastic bottles being thrown away, by designing bottles which can be used as building materials. Thats a good idea but its useless without the implementation. The students came up with an implementation, a shape for bottles which can be filled with sand, used as bricks, and which can be snapped together to build structures. Its a good design, and might help people in the developing world….but obviously only if the vast majority of bottles in the developing world are made according to the design.
What incentive is there for large volume bottle manufacturers to expend money to retool their plants? What incentive is there for large volume bottle purchaser’s to insist that the design of bottles which they purchase should be changed? In both cases the problem if bottles which are used once and then thrown away, at best into land fill, or often in developing countries to pollute watercourses, is not one which either manufacturers or purchasers have any economic incentive to resolve, its what economists term a “negative externality” i.e. someone else’s problem.
Of course regulation which levied a pollution levy on manufacturers or distributors of plastic bottles could create such an incentive, but most developing countries don’t have such regulations. In the absence of regulation perhaps public pressure might create some kind of incentive.
But Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has created a barrier which even a manufacturer or distributor which wanted to do the right thing would have to overcome. Not only would it have to spend money to re-tool its plant, not only would it have to provide some kind of education to end user’s if the bottles were to be used effectively, but it would also have to pay the monopoly rents which the Institute wants to extract. The technology transfer office claims to own an idea, an idea which was motivated by the desire of undergraduate students to help people in the developing world. Not only does it claim to own the idea but it is intent on extracting revenue from it, with the likely consequence that the idea will never help people in developing countries.
That is the story, a story in which an educational institution teaches its undergraduate students that their efforts to help people, to solve social problems, are primarily opportunities to make money. Its a sad story. What is even even sadder is that the NYT missed the story.