Ideas are not like apples

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” – George Bernard Shaw

This quote from George Bernard Shaw should be explicit enough to explain the difference between knowledge and material goods. But in the last decades we have created artificial coatings for knowledge, like copyrights and patents, that don’t allow the free, as in freedom, diffusion of ideas. These copyrights and patents turn ideas artificially into material goods.

This comes from the fact that a company inventing new stuff has three costs: research, raw materials and production costs. If a company decided to copy an invention it would only have two costs, raw materials and production costs, making the inventor completely unable to compete with the copycat.

Copyrights and patents comes from the XVIIIth century to protect inventors, in an era where books and schools could not match the power of Internet, and knowledge was very expensive and hard to share on a large scale. At the beginning of the “industrial era” the means of production were privatized and now some are trying to do the same with human knowledge.

With the means we have today, thanks to Internet and a growing set of collaborative tools, it makes no sense anymore to keep designing for scarcity when we can be designing for abundance. As Shaw puts it knowledge is an inexhaustible resource, and requires artificial mechanisms to diminish its capacity to reproduce infinitely.

When we patent algorithms, math methods, genetic sequences and so on, what isn’t taken into account is that these innovations are just a current state of things which is the result of an evolution through many centuries, and by granting exclusivity, we are putting barriers to further improvement.

The Open Source and Free Licence movement are creating alternatives to companies and universities patenting their research on food improvement or new medical discoveries. Specially when we take into account that If all this was correctly funded and given straight away it would create tremendous abundance 20 years before the end of the patent rights.

One example of this is Jonas Salk who decided not to patent the Polio vaccine he discovered. By doing this, it is estimated he forfeited $2 billion, but it allowed to create a market around his discovery, make vaccines 25% cheaper than if it had been licensed and enable further research around it by others.

Another amazing example of the abundance that can be created by not patenting things is what the 3D Printing industry has become. 3D printing was patented in 1984, but it is only after the patent expiration 10 years ago that the field has exploded, with the invention of the Adrien Bowyer’s Open Source RepRap in 2005. What would have happened if it had never been patented?

Or what would have happened if in 1993 Tim-Werners Lee had changed his mind and had patented the technologies at the base of the Internet we use today? Maybe the idea would have started  blossoming in 2013 after the end of the patent, and we would be seeing the Internet like this today. And of course we wouldn’t have any Internet platform such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb or App Stores. This Open Source things is really a big deal.

As Mario Ruoppolo puts it in the movie “The Postman”:

Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, but to those who need it.”

In this case we can say medicine doesn’t belong to those who find it, but to those who need it.

Those who invent must make a living for sure, but if they shared their creations with the world, the innovation could reach those who really need it, rather than just those who can afford it.

Some remarkable example of this Open Source inventions  are the Elio Domestico, a relatively low-tech device that can turn salty water into fresh water.

Another recent example is the Hydro-alcohol gel used to clean the hands without water. The inventor, Didier Pittet, didn’t patent his invention so it could be diffused at a higher speed and at a lower cost. With this decision Pittet’s invention has been adopted in many hospitals around the world and in countries in the South, saving millions of lives.

This wouldn’t have been possible if the formula had been exploited by a pharmaceutical laboratory in exclusivity.

Tesla’s Motors release of patents has also been very celebrated since it has shown a new path to big corporate companies to stop their patent wars and build together upon what has proved beneficial to everyone.

There have been many more examples of great inventions being in Open Licence in the past that have changed the face of the world forever:

-Marie Curie never patented her methods of processing radium or its medical applications, She also was a pioneer in crowdfunding when she raised $100.000 to buy a gram of radium she couldn’t afford…

Jonas Salk decided in 1955 to release his polio vaccine without a patent, and allowing the entire world to get a cure for it.

Tim Berners-Lee never patented the technologies that were the base of today’s Internet

While the internet has become a vast recipe repository, the Maker movement is growing exponentially, fablabs, bio-hacker labs and maker spaces are becoming the kitchens of the new world. We have never been closer to be able to produce and prototype locally most of our needs, which may bring a lot of the relocalization of the industries once outsourced.

“It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits” – John Maynard Keynes

Indeed a recipe can be studied, modified, distributed, made and sold. Open Source and Open Licensed innovations create new market that can spread faster and more widely, creating abundance in society, when proprietary solutions only create more scarcity.

One of the main problems holding back Open Source movements today is that it doesn’t always feed its contributors. That’s why  we created Oslantis, to reward through crowdfunding those creating in Open Source and sharing their inventions for others to create upon them.

If we can fund the research these inventors are sharing with others, they could freely decide whether they want to take care of the production and distribution of their invention, or leave it to others and create a bigger pond of abundance for everyone.

Image sources:, Sandra Mills, Kimberly Chandler, Lorena Salagre, Blurgrounds

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Jaime Arredondo
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