Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

FFII Advisor Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz on certain Aspects of Patent Law.

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FFII Advisor Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz on certain Aspects of Patent Law.

Mr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz, Law Professor at the Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, has decided to provide a comment on my earlier posting on the removal of a certain US Patent from the public on-line patent database mainatined by the U.S. Patent and Trade Mark Office (USPTO). Dr. Lenz writes:

"[...] On the other hand, Axel H. Horns might be right in commenting that the basic social contract behind the patent system is granting a temporary monopoly in exchange for public information. That would mean that the very fundaments of the patent system require that every lunatic on the planet is served by the Patent Office with information about how to use ricin for the next large scale attack.

That in turn would seem to lead to an excellent argument for wholesale abolition of the patent system, if anybody should get inclined to call for such abolition, for example as a reaction to the mess caused by software patents.

"Look! The patent office is helping terrorists to develop their WMD ability! And we can't even stop that without compromising the basic social contract the patent system is built on."

This is a strong argument. I am personally very much interested in preserving a free Internet. However, I draw a line at pages describing technology to build weapons of mass destruction. Leaving this information freely available can kill people. The level of damage possibly arising from that is extremely high.

I'll be happy to come back to this case if I ever feel that there is no other hope left than calling for abolition.

And, by the way, if the patent in question can still be found in foreign databases, that only proves that it needs to be removed from those immediately as well. [...]" Firstly and on a more pragmatic level I must say that Dr. Lenz's proposal to remove the said patent from other on-line databases is as futile as the manipulation of the public database of the U.S.-PTO was because of the said patent document has been in the public since more than fourty years, and surely there are too many copies out there barring any attempt to successfully re-collect all of them. These copies are not only availabe in more or less centralised databases but also in collections of patent documents stored on CD-ROMS and sold to everybody who wanted to have them, not to forget the paper-copy collections maintained in many places around the world. A lot of patent information centres, companies with an interest in patents, patent searchers, patent document suppliers and the like own vast collections of patent documents on CD-ROMs or even on paper. You can't put such stuff back into the bottle after more than forty years, and any attempt to calm down the genral public by such actions is in effect nothing else than disinformation.

Secondly, I would like to note that the said patent, if seen from the perspective of 1962 (the year in which the patent was granted and published), is not necessarily as directed to "lunatics" as attributed by Dr. Lenz. I am neither a chemist nor a pharmacologist but I know that sometimes poisonous substances extracted from various plants might be valuable pharmaceuticals if given at a very low dosage or if chemically modified. So far as I know today there is no medical usage of ricin or of ricin derivates but might it have been worth in 1962 just to consider thinking of such potential "positive" usage of ricin? It is a rather simple task to point at the risk of terroristic misuse of ricin from today's point of view. It is quite another task to forsee future implications of any new technology.

Finally, I think that it is necessary to point out some more general implications of Dr. Lenz's proposal. It is not very difficult to use the "International Patent Classification (IPC)" scheme to wade through myriads of patent documents e.g. in the field of explosives (e.g. IPC Classes C06B, C06C) or weaponry technology (e.g. IPC Classes F41, F42). Should all these documents be kept secret? Moreover, reportedly the bombs in the Madrid commuter trains have been triggered using some mobile phone technology. Thereorectically, patent documents in this field might have been helpful in preparing such devices. Why not trying to keep secret even all patent documents in the field of telecommunication?

Each and every effective technology has a certain potential to provide power to those individuals who are in a position to make use of it. To tackle the fear of terrorism this way would mean that any powerful technology must be locked away and hidden from the general public, and only a small sworn-in fraternity of "monks of technology" trusted by the state can be allowed to deal therewith as it is currently attempted to enforce with regard to nuclear weapons technology (without much success as it looks). This would be, needless to say, absolutely incompatible with any concept of an open society.

The above-quoted comments provided by Dr. Lenz are interesting all the more as he surely can be seen as an influencial adivsor of Mr. Pilch, President of the FFII e.V. So it is not very much surprising that Dr. Lenz considers public anxieties against mis-use of technology as a "strong argument" to harm the patent system even if he serves some lip-service to assure that he is interested in preserving a free Internet. Effectively, there are strange parallels between the position of this advisor to the FFII e.V. and proposals coming from another side as already reported in my earlier posting there.