back to article Who owns science? Manchester Manifesto can't answer

Who owns science could be an interesting question: who should own science even more so. Sadly, the latest attempt at asking exactly these is less than interesting in its answers. The Manchester Manifesto (pdf) is a report from the Great and the Good over how we should change the intellectual property system so as to make it …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    As a leading and deeply respected scientist

    I couldn't give two hoots about who thinks they own science or not.

  2. breakfast

    A middle ground is needed

    One thing that occurred to me when the whole software patents argument was at it's height a few years ago, was that what we really need is to create an entirely new middle ground innovation protection for software - and this could potentially go for other scientific work as well - that affords patent-like protections but for a relatively short time, so that from the time of first exploitation a soft-patented idea loses it's value after two years or so. That is plenty of time for a product utilising it to get to the market and make considerable profit but not long enough to have a stultifying effect on the rest of the market - in a fast moving industry a lot of software that was cutting edge a few years ago is either abandonware or has been open-sourced. An approach like this could offer vitality to the market and bring value to innovators without stifling everyone else indefinitely.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      beware the snout of the camel at the door of your tent ...

      ... the rest of the camel will soon follow: as soon as it is introduced large corrupt corporation will, ahem, persuade politicians to extend it to 5, 10, 25, 75 years. It's just the slow road to software patents (and I'd bet it wouldn't be that slow).

      1. The Indomitable Gall

        Nosey camels at campsites

        You certainly have a point.

        Any legislation for software patents should be part of a *reduction* of patent lifespans.

        The point of patents is to encourage innovation and invention by allowing the inventor/innovator to recoup the cost of research (and hopefully profit on the deal). Any revision to patent law for computer software has to be part of a wider patent reform that notes that computer simulations have drastically cut the cost of research and the time taken in research.

        From this it follows that the exclusivity period should be equally cut.

        This leads to a conclusion that will be uncomfortable for some:

        "Proper" invention -- devices -- can be simulated easily, whereas the effects of drugs need lots of genuine physical trials. This means that medical research would need the current limit, and it's "proper invention" that would need reduced.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Myths and legends

          "The point of patents is to encourage innovation and invention by allowing the inventor/innovator to recoup the cost of research (and hopefully profit on the deal)."

          This is the common myth about patents, and certainly, people with patents can profit on the exploitation of their discoveries, but from day one patents have been suboptimal (as has been documented with regard to the early industrial revolution, steam engine development, and so on). Now, centuries on, the amount of readily available knowledge is greater than ever, and the threshold lower than ever for combining such knowledge in order to produce new insights.

          The problem with most discussions about the patent system is that they focus on fiddling with the details under the assumption that the system is a well implemented idea: raise this limit, lower this other one, perhaps the curves cross at the right place and value is created (or whatever the economists would say when trying to reduce the whole thing to a single dimension). But in fact, once people understand that government, governance, laws and regulations are not mere lubricants to a privately owned and run machine, it becomes possible to consider other approaches to funding basic research.

          Perversely, advocates of overbearing "intellectual property" regimes need their regulations and laws even as they ridicule a government or public sector role in creating opportunities around knowledge accumulation and, as the economists might say, the "exploitation" of those opportunities.

  3. Graham Marsden


    Message from the Large Hadron Collider staff:

    We have just discovered the Higgs Boson. We now own the patent to this particle and nobody else is allowed to create them or research them without paying us a licence fee...

    1. Bounty

      WTF indeed

      You can't patent a particle, there is nobody even implying that. You can patent a method for manufacturing the particle though. I think patents are useful if they are properly targeted. These targets should be set by industry panels, then voted on by the public directly. Software patents should be short. Copyrights should not be nearly as long as they are now.

      20 years max monopoly. If you can't make money on it by then, you were never going to make money. Any longer than that and you're preventing innovation. I'm not saying that should be the standard for anything, just that it's the max. Software patents should last like 5 years, copyright and other patents maybe 10. It's hard to think of a case where you would need longer to make some money on a useful innovation.

  4. AlistairJ

    A mere glimpse

    Into the insanity that whirls inside the mids of those much vaunted pseudo-science punters, economists.

    We will get nowhere until we accept that any money-based system is fundamentally flawed. We need to look towards a time when money becomes obsolete. Only then can we become free. Free I tell you!! Mwahahaha

  5. codemonkey

    The problem...

    “Our problem is that such public goods are terribly hard to make money out of. If we can't stop someone else from using them how can we charge for them? And therein lies that problem: if we can't charge for the use then how do we raise the money to find out all this wonderful new knowledge?”

    How short sighted does one have to be to not see that any kind of profit making is actually holding humanity back? For example, contrast our connected nature ( ) with our antagonistic production system ( )and you will realise that we are holding ourselves back by looking for a “way to make money” ( profit ) from any technological idea. And to be fair, that spreads to all commodities.

    And I’d have thought that elReg would have been into logic too?


  6. Anonymous Coward

    It's a question of choice

    As it happens, not only have we and our ape antecendents been innovating for a very long time, so have our earlier antecendents over several million years (albeit implicitly).

    That's two points :

    1) innovation happens naturally through evolution, implicitly

    2) there's plenty of research showing that apes and humans *both like to solve puzzles and innovate*. It's part of our natural urge.

    Plenty of social systems have tried to suppress, and even halt innovation. They have failed due to this inbuilt urge and the enormous advantages innovation brings society.

    One of the burning issues of our time, however, is whether or not over innovation (and particularly over capitalisation of innovation) is driving our society mad - by over consuming natural resources by using marketing to send our primitive urges to gain social status through possession into overdrive. I think there's something in that.

    The conclusion is that there's nothing wrong with stepping away from the completely rampant innovation culture and economy which constantly spurs it on... it would be healthier for us all.. and in doing so, we will not STOP innovating because it remains part of our nature.

  7. peter 5 Silver badge

    A house built on sand.

    I'm with the AC @ 16:42 GMT, at least for the first four paragraphs. The best programmers program for the thrill, the glory, and the money - in that order. Ditto most of the scientists I've known. You don't need to pay us to innovate: just make sure we have a roof over our head and a well stocked wine cellar. That's why we only get 3% of the wealth. We don't need to be encouraged; but barriers discourage us.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The big differences

    "The sweet spot of such a system would be when the amount of new creation encouraged was greater than the derivative work banned: something which it is hard to argue the current system does when, say, Wodehouse's first novel, The Pothunters, released in 1902 will be in copyright until 2045. Patents with their 17 year life (and of course their extremely important corollary, the full release of methods at patent time) might be closer to what a desirable system would have."

    The big differences between copyright and patents are that the latter affects entire *classes* of works when one person or organisation files for such a monopoly, and that anyone unfortunate enough to have developed such a work independently and without knowledge of the granting of such a monopoly can be punished for their honest efforts. It is arguable whether the man in the street "respects copyright" but he can surely understand what plagiarism is. In contrast, a patent claim and its effects would be baffling and cruel to anyone but the most blatant apologist for the patent system.

    Fiddling with term limits ignores the fundamental injustice of patents, especially in fields such as software where advances occur frequently and ubiquitously as the wealth of existing knowledge is combined and enhanced.

  9. David Kelly 2

    17 Years?

    US patents were revised about 10 years ago to follow the European norm of 20 year term from application. Previously the term was 17 years from grant which was occasionally abused by questionable filings being appealed and revised for years and decades until something was finally issued. And then they would demand royalties from the past, and for the next 17 years.

    The "Software Patent" opposition totally miss the point in that there is not any difference between an invention implemented in software vs one implemented in hardware. Those opposed to software patents simply want to profit and clone the work of others right now rather than wait 20 years for the patent to expire and become public domain.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Projecting untruths

      "Those opposed to software patents simply want to profit and clone the work of others right now rather than wait 20 years for the patent to expire and become public domain."

      Nope. Those opposed to software patents don't want to have to license a zillion patents for stuff that is taught at universities, described in freely available literature, included in countless systems, and built using numerous freely usable and openly described concepts and mechanisms. Stuff that purely by applying the knowledge and expertise they have gained through learning and experience they will inadvertently reproduce, just through the proper practice of their discipline, without ever reading the vague, opportunistic text of a single patent claim.

      Those in favour of software patents just want yet another discipline to plod along at a restrained pace while monopolists and the legal profession extract every last dollar from practitioners of the discipline, burdening those willing to tolerate operating an organisation under such a regime with obscene administrative and legal overheads that would effectively turn such an organisation into more of a client of the patent system than a participant in the realm of science, engineering and technology.

      Both genuinely competitive proprietary software vendors *and* Free Software developers reject software patents and yet embrace copyright since it is the only fair instrument which protects developers from plagiarism and unfair exploitation of their work. Your suggestion that such parties don't respect genuine innovation is a despicable misrepresentation of their position - yet another untruth projected by the software patent lobby as it seeks to position itself as a solution to a problem that simply doesn't exist.

  10. UBfusion

    Towards a Science and Industry of Fear

    The authors of the Manifesto in page 1 claim "Science is a rapidly growing industry." This very sentence implies that in the present century it is very hard to draw clear cut lines between knowledge and know-how, pure science, applied science, technology, industry and economics. Therefore, the question "who owns science" is in fact at least 7 overlapping questions, and this is reflected in the reader's comments. Idealists are usually biased towards pure science 'for the advancement of knowledge', while liberals or neo-cons may view science as a more competitive endeavor, aiming at providing more jobs or better life conditions.

    Unfortunately, "public goods" as defined by Mr Warstall are nowadays just byproducts and or "left-overs" of scientific activity (unless he had the iPhone in mind, created to effectively fight cancer). An innovation becomes a public good if and only if there is enough commercial incentive for companies/manufacturers to implement it in a massive scale. Evidence to this claim are for example the electric car, fission reactors, cheap vaccines and food for the third world: invented decades ago but still held back because the profits are not high enough.

    Discriminating between inventions and innovations is rather irrelevant. The latest fashionable "inventions" seem to be focusing to the development of the Science and Industry of Fear (producing whatever is necessary for the establishment of a State of Fear). Yes, the issue now has become political and the Manchester "critical mass of research expertise" may be massive but not critical anymore. Reviewing this year's El Reg popular topics, one can easily see that technology is more and more focusing on orwellian or googlian themes. All indications seem to point to the same direction: "Science" (in all 7 flavours mentioned above) will in the end belong to either the State or the Monopolies. "Public goods" like clean water, electricity, health or communication are becoming either harder to purchase (filling the Money Banks) or being exchanged with precious personal information needed to fill the new banks, the Data Banks.

    Yes, I'm paranoid and delusional when it comes to "Science" and Knowledge. For those that will compassionately advise me to "get a life", thanks, but I can't afford it any more. Big props to El Reg editors for the great articles like this one, managing to really strike a chord in me.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have a question....

    it has been mentioned above that any monetary system is flawed and for some types of work, for some people, they might do that work purely for the joy of it. Now my question is how many of the people who have really hard, physical, demanding jobs are going to do those jobs simply to provide a service?

    I know some of these people will love their work and would continue to do that work, but many, perhaps the majority, would not. This would be the same for most occupations, I would guess, so then who does what? how do we decide?

    Human nature I think; must have a need to do something, otherwise, I'll have some beers, oh, has anyone made any?

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