Can we still use the F-word?

Sven? My lawyers would like a word with you...

Hi!™ You may have seen this article in Techcrunch at the end of the year claiming that F*book was trying to trademark the word “face”.  It seems they’ve got every right to try, in the US at least, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office’s list of current and pending trademarks.

According to the USPTO, your face is dead, while Pottyface seems to be doing just fine. I’ll bet that somewhere in Switzerland, David B. is feeling sick though. He abandoned his trademark in 2007. That said, I’m not convinced 600 million people would have signed up for ankle socks and shower shoes called Face.

Anyway, you can trademark a word you didn’t make up yourself. But what is a trademark? According to this OECD working paper, just about any kind of sign can be a TM, including combinations of colours or sounds, if it is used to distinguish goods or services.

The Facebook bid isn’t in fact as outrageous as it first seems since the protection would only cover social networking businesses that tried to cash in on the Facebook brand. However, it does raise questions about the value of intellectual property, what can and can’t be protected, and whether protection is beneficial to society as a whole.

If intellectual property protection is weak, then technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D. 

As we mention in the Insights book on international trade, history provides some interesting examples to fuel the debate on the ideal level of intellectual property protection.

One of the most quoted ones is the light bulb. Joseph Swan patented a carbon filament lamp in England in 1878, and Thomas Edison patented essentially the same thing a year later in the US. At that time, there were no patent laws in the Netherlands, so in 1891 Royal Philips Electronics, as Philips was known at the time, could simply take the invention and turn it into the money spinner that would finance the firm’s expansion and inventions of its own.

Ericsson did something similar in 1876: it reverse-engineered Bell’s telephone, which he hadn’t patented in Sweden.

Some of the most controversial issues concern biotechnology, often presented as the right to patent life. In the 1980s, the OECD argued that discoveries regarding the chemical processes involved could be accorded protection as intellectual property

However, in the mid-2000s a company that developed a genetic test for cancer wanted to keep complete control of the testing and the databanks built up while doing it.

The OECD Guidelines for the Licensing of Genetic Inventions came out strongly against this, saying that yes, intellectual property should be protected, but it should also be shared. Health benefits should not be restricted by patent protection. Likewise, strict privacy guidelines were defined to protect the rights of the public.

Useful links

OECD work on intellectual assets and value creation

OECD work on intellectual property rights

OECD work on counterfeiting and piracy

Disasters and the traps of poverty and wealth

UN HQ in Haiti after the earthquake

Today’s post is contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY

We like to categorize disasters into two types – natural and man-made. 2011 has begun with massive flooding in agricultural regions of Northeast Australia causing shoppers to brace for the inevitable increase in food prices that will soon follow. Just one death so far though and no doubt the rugged Australian farmer will get through this latest assault by Nature.

In 2010 we had a very well publicized example of a disaster of the man-made type in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where 11 workers were killed and an enormous drilling structure incinerated and crumpled onto the sea floor causing an oil spill of historic proportions that threatened the Gulf coast. Pundits kept upping the drama of the event from the worst environmental disaster ever, to Obama’s Katrina, Obama’s 9/11 and even Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis! None of this proved to be true and given the scale of the event itself – more oil released into the ocean than ever before – the scale of environmental damage seems to be not so great, not compared to what we all thought might be the consequences. We were all expecting thousands upon thousands of oil soaked seabirds but there were relatively few and just days after the seafloor gusher was finally plugged there was hardly any oil to be found anywhere.

On Boxing Day the New York Times published an extensive analysis of what went wrong 50 miles offshore Louisiana, the mistakes that were made many from inaction by workers on the drill rig though disaster was staring them in the face. The Times did not say so outright but it does seem that disaster could have been avoided. Certainly people will be held accountable. Someone will be blamed; perhaps many people will share the blame.

Who do we blame for the earthquake in Haiti earlier in the year on January 11th that killed around a quarter of a million people? (more…)