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Trading our intellectual property for a lamb chop ...

By Dale Spender - posted Friday, 24 August 2007


Australia - are we the world’s most innovative and inventive country?

Whether Australia is the world’s most innovative/inventive country is an interesting question to ask - but its not a very helpful one if we want to know if such an achievement is an asset: for the test is not whether or not we can invent - it’s whether or not we can commercialise our inventions, so that they become assets.

Certainly, Australia has achieved enormous success in its sheer number of inventions (particularly with its small population base). But this country is but an amateur in comparison to the United States when it comes to converting inventions into the new wealth of intellectual property. (And given America’s history of patent theft and piracy - this might not be a model Australia chooses to follow.)

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More than any other country, the United States has a longer history, and a more explicit policy of protecting intellectual property: its own.

Unlike Australia - which still has no national IP (intellectual property) policy, the United States began with an understanding of the importance of commercialisation.

The founding fathers of the American constitution explicitly stated that Congress had the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”.

What the Constitution did not state, (but which became the reality) was that this exclusive right applied then only to American citizens, and that it was always meant to serve American interests. It is one reason that in the 21st century, America owns most of the world’s intellectual property, and that regardless of successful inventions, Australia owns very little.

From its first days of independence, the United States placed the greatest emphasis on the development of a “home-grown” American industry - by any means. And to do this, says Pat Choate, himself an American citizen, the Americans stole “ideas and technology from the rest of the world, without embarrassment, apology or compensation” (2005, p17-18).

America hasn’t been the only country to adopt a national policy of pirating other countries trade secrets and industrial know-how, (Japan and China are more recent examples): but it was the first to develop an open culture of piracy.

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Throughout the 19th century, for example, America boldly and blatantly pirated all the works of the great English novelists. Charles Dickens complained and protested that he was losing millions in the United States, as his highly popular books sold (in extraordinary numbers) for a mere fraction of their cost in England, and without one penny going into his pockets.

But the Americans justified their piracy. They wanted to promote a culture of mass literacy and education; they needed workers who could read and write (and follow manuals) in their expanding factory system. And the only way they could achieve this was by providing their citizens with inexpensive literature.

(When in the late 20th century, countries such as India came forward with much the same argument of educating the masses, and sought cheap educational texts from the United States - American politicians had either forgotten their own history, or decided that the Indian argument was not convincing.)

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About the Author

Dale spender is a researcher and writer on education and the new technologies.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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