Hannah Leonie Prinzler
The Patent Wars
Are you aware that 20% of your genes are patented and owned by private corporations? This fact alone was enough to spark our interest and inspire us to find out more from German documentarian, Hannah Leonie Prinzler.
Almost six years ago, Hannah set out to investigate the nefarious world of patents in her riveting documentary, The Patent Wars. The stories told throughout this film have complex and potentially sinister implications for all of us.There is a very real war going on right now hidden from plain view, and it concerns each and every one of us. We sat down with Hannah to discuss why patents effect us all and, more so, why we need to pay very close attention to them if we want to keep sovereignty over our own future.
Why did you decide to cover a story about patents?
I came across the issue when I was researching another project on nanotechnology and the social impact of high-tech. I suddenly realised that the uncanny feelings that arose are not only provoked by what these technologies might do to us but by who owns and controls them. I learned that, especially in areas like the biotechnology and nanotech sectors, there are a lot of companies out there which research mainly in order to apply for patents, hoping that they will cover very broad and basic principles of a new technology and rake in a lot of money with their patents subsequently. I immediately felt that this was a very questionable practice and I thought, “Why don’t we know about this? Why is nobody discussing this?” To fill that gap was my main motivation when I started to work on the film about six years ago.
Your documentary is a fascinating one with many implications. Very political and complex. Firstly, I think watching this movie dissuaded me from ever inventing anything or filing a patent!
Just the sheer insanity of it all didn’t make this an attractive world. Were you yourself amazed at the complexity and financial scale of it all? What would you say to someone who was young, ambitious and wanted to create something, perhaps like James Dyson?
The patent system is just another example of the many things that are going into a totally wrong direction. It’s just that most people aren’t aware of it.
If I were a young, ambitious, inventor – like James Dyson was about 30 years ago – I would probably not consider to file a patent today, but look for alternative means of protection and licensing systems like Creative Commons. I would also ask myself, ‘What do I expect from a patent?’ A patent is first of all a legal tool that gives you the right to sue your infringers. But, that costs a lot of money. So, unless you want to attract huge investments into your business and build up your own intellectual property department, a patent is probably hard to enforce for a small company anyway. I would ask myself, ‘Where is the value of the idea or the product that I invented? Can I come up with a business-model that does not rely on the intellectual property? If it is a great social innovation, isn’t it desirable to be copied as quickly and widely as possible anyway?’
But, unfortunately, there is still the risk that another company would come and sue me for infringement of their patents. So I might still need to go through the arduous and expensive process of filing a patent just to protect myself in anticipation of a possible attack. And that’s were this whole business gets really messy.
How did you decide to approach this as it became more complex, as there are a lot of moving parts to this story?
The film is a mosaic, a collection of smaller stories and examples. I deliberately decided to look into a broad range of different areas – computer technologies, genes, medicines, seeds and traditional indigenous knowledge – because I wanted to give an overview of the patent system as a whole by addressing the multiple problems and conflicts within that system. At a certain stage in the process, I decided to use myself as a guide through the film, so the narrative arc follows my research and my journeys to places like the Silicon Valley, to India or Geneva. To discover this indeed complicated world through the eyes of a curious outsider – myself – hopefully helps the viewer to be drawn into the topic emotionally.
“Why don’t we know about this? Why is nobody discussing this?”
What was the biggest thing that surprised you about making this documentary?
I was very surprised and deeply moved by the Indian protagonists of the film. We shot in the U.S. first and went to India afterwards. I had of course expected that there is a big difference between Americans and Indians and their perspective on patents and intellectual property.
Still, I was very touched by the humanist approach of the Indian protagonists. All of them argued that you have to balance the rights of an inventor with the needs of a society to grow and develop, whereas in the U.S. the debate seems to be exclusively focused on staking claims, protecting investments and making profits.
To me, the Indian view seems to be a lot more sustainable and socially desirable. I think we need their criticism and opposition in order to understand how shortsighted and selfish the route is that we are taking. There were probably some good intentions when modern patent laws were introduced to the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries. But they have been lost over history, especially with the patent practice of the last decades – as David Martin, a U.S. American Intellectual Property analyst argues in my film.
You state on your website as an introduction for the movie, “Did you know that you can patent colours, numbers, plants and animals – and that 20% of your genes are patented and owned by private corporations?” Do you think many people know this is a reality?
I am sure most people aren’t aware of that! But the European Patent Office in Munich has issued about 1000 patents on genetically modified animals like mice and even great apes. Countries like the U.S., until recently, allowed patents on genes and still grant patents on stem cells. All of this raises severe ethical questions. I think we better start discussing if we as a society really want to grant those rights to individual private companies – are the benefits really worth the risk?
The AIDS drugs issue in India was interesting, it just showed how many people potentially suffer because of patent laws.
In Europe, where we have a more or less functioning health insurance system, people usually have no idea how much their insurers pay for certain drugs. The social costs of medical patents suddenly gets very obvious in countries like India. If a drug is patent-protected and can’t be copied in the local pharmaceutical industry, it is simply unavailable to people because they have to pay for the drugs themselves. When the first AIDS drugs came onto the market in India in the 1990s, they cost almost 10.000 USD – an amount that only very few Europeans would have been able to pay for too!
There is a general human right to medicines. I don’t really understand the logic that allows us to say, ‘For you guys in Africa, unfortunately this drug will only be available after the end of the patent term in 20 years – or maybe only in 40 years if the pharmaceutical company is ingenious in finding ways to prolong the term.’
“I find it a rather frightening and dystopian vision that Google wants to buy up patents at a large scale and I don’t think that this is a solution at all. Just imagine one company owning and controlling all the world’s important technologies! ”
I was amazed to learn that developing nations pay more in licensing fees for patents than they receive in development aid – quite an alarming fact. How do you think it got this point? What can developing nations do to avoid this? This relates to big pharmacy drugs etc. and the like.
We got to this point because industrialised countries and the representatives of their industries decided to export their concept of intellectual property to developing countries. When the World Trade Organisation was founded in the mid-1990s, it became a membership requirement to sign an agreement that forced countries to introduce intellectual property laws similar to U.S. and European standards. So, instead of just being able to copy things freely for their local markets, developing countries need to import products or buy licenses in order to use a wind turbine, for example. It is hard to find statistics, but I talked to some experts who really made me understand how hypocritical this system really is; on the one hand we give development aid as a charity, on the other hand those countries and their governments have to buy technologies and medicines from companies in the western world – often at a totally overrated price. It would probably be much more helpful for their development if they could build up their own industry by copying freely.
David Martin, who runs a patent & IP analysis firm in Virginia, wants to overcome this dependency. He counsels governments like that of Mongolia or Papua New-Guinea. With the help of special databases and software, he can evaluate if a technology – like a wind turbine – is really worth the price that is being asked. Or if there are similar technologies that are no longer patent protected in the country that is seeking the technology.
Another great point raised in the film was by the Italian, Michele Boldrin; he said the patent system is in crisis and represents a “[state] of recession, or that western society has becomes less innovative”. What do you think of this?
I included his statement in the film because I felt that he reminds us of something very important: we have to be very careful that we are not drowning our creative aspirations as a society with a purely money-oriented system. The patent system, or the intellectual property system in general, turns knowledge into a commodity so that you can attach a price to it and create a market for it. This works because something that can be shared indefinitely by its nature, like knowledge, is being restricted through a monopoly right. This is quite an artificial operation and a relatively recent “invention.” We shouldn’t forget that many non-Western cultures, especially indigenous ones, don’t know or strongly oppose the concept of individual private ownership of ideas, inventions or art.
We should also remember that the majority of things in the history of humanity have certainly not been invented for the sake of money. I believe it was more likely the joy of creating, the hope for a better future, the spiritual aspiration to create something of greatness, the wish to help others in the community or simply love that made people rise above themselves and create something of value to society.
If there is no other reference or incentive left but money, I fear that this will put our Western societies not only into an economic crisis but a crisis of identity and meaning.
“If I were a young ambitious inventor - like James Dyson was about 30 years ago - I would probably not consider to file a patent today”
Hannah Leonie Prinzler
There is a part in the movie where you feature a group in the U.S. building cars on their own. Costing materials being less than $10,000 USD. This sentiment perhaps is a little idealistic? The Commons trend has been around for some time but never really gained popularity, why?
Maybe it’s true that the Commons movement has often been seen as a bunch of idealists, but this is definitely not true for Local Motors. Since we shot the story at their headquarters in Arizona, they have made huge headlines in the U.S. after developing the world’s first 3D-printed electric car. They are currently setting up a factory in Berlin as well as other places all over the world. In Berlin, they have been commissioned to develop a study of the city’s future transportation system in a crowd-sourced innovation process. They’re proving that open innovation is a serious business model.
I read an interesting article in The Economist that talked about why inventions are not very innovative anymore. There are many patents, but the actual inventions are not as dynamic. They said this is because inventions mainly exist by “recombining existing technologies” and chime with the idea that inventors were more adventurous in the past?
The problem is that obviously only less than 5% of all patent applications refer to real innovations. I talked to a former patent examiner at the European Patent Office and he told me that it was a common saying among his colleagues that “they hadn’t seen an invention in five years.” A lot of patents, especially in the computer industries, are only there for strategic reasons, which means that companies want to use them as defensive or even offensive weapons in lawsuits. The number of patent applications is often used as an indicator for the inventiveness of a country and its level of innovation, but after my research for the film I doubt that this is a convincing parameter. Perhaps the real innovation is already happening somewhere else.
One area that was not discussed was the technology sector. The very public Apple vs. Samsung patent war, for example. These billion dollar companies have built up war chests to protect themselves from such infringements. However, Google has approached this slightly differently; recently they came out on a public spending spree for patents. This was done in order to avoid future trolls, which have caused havoc. Perhaps this is a way to go in the future?
I find it a rather frightening and dystopian vision that Google wants to buy up patents at a large scale and I don’t think that this is a solution at all. Just imagine one company owning and controlling all the world’s important technologies! Why should we trust Google? They are not democratically elected and can simply change their terms and conditions at any time.
The patent troll problem needs to be solved on a political level instead. It is first of all a problem of U.S. laws and jurisdiction.
We interviewed a data scientist, Viktor-Mayer Schonberg, who talked about a new emergence of forensic data predictability that can already enable crime units to predict someone’s crime before it even happened. I see patents on genes in a similar murky world. Owning genes can have a chilling effect on society. Do you agree? How do you think we can control this?
The problem of gene patents is not only that they make certain diagnostic medical products, like Myriad’s BRCA breast cancer genes test, unnecessarily expensive. In countries like the U.S. where the patent holder can also decide on and even prohibit research activities, many people fear that those patents may stifle medical innovation and progress instead of fostering it. And, again, I think this can only be controlled through wise political regulations. The public interest has to be taken into account.
The patent world is a complicated monster and it interacts with our everyday life. What would you like the general public to be aware of, having made this movie?
The more things in our lives rely on technology – just think of highly processed foods, genetically modified seeds, medicines and even outdoor fabrics – the more things are patent protected, which means that one company owns the rights to the technology. I know that it is a very complex field and for an individual person it is hard to do anything about it. But, I think it is possible if people become aware of how things are connected and which ethical and social implications might arise – especially if you look at it from a global perspective.
What kind of feedback did you get from this movie? Did it inspire people, help them, inform them?
The film has been screened on public television in Germany and France and at a series of festivals mainly in North America. We always had very engaged debates after every screening. At the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is close to the Silicon Valley, many people who work in the field came over to the shows. Later this year I will screen the film at the European parliament in Brussels and I look forward to the discussion – I really hope there is still more to come to help nourish the debate.
Listening to this music always gives me a deep sense of clarity, beauty and tranquility.
This little book has been accompanying me for quite some time. It’s a very playful and poetic story and I enjoy the enchanting atmosphere of it.
My meditation spot at home: I usually get the best inspirations from my daily meditation sessions.