1960s >> 1968 >> no-761-january-1968

Background to Patents

Some workers look upon patents as a chance to make their fortunes, rather like coming up on the pools, with the chances just as remote. It has the added attraction of appearing to be a reward given for the contribution of some useful invention to society. They cite as example a zip fastener, and say “simple isn’t it? The bloke who invented that must have made a fortune. Wish I could hit on an idea like that.” Its all part of a dream world where production and technical development is an individual affair and success comes as a result of meritorious effort.

The world of capitalism in which patents, copyright and trade marks are needed does not operate like that. It is a system of society with a fundamental contradiction in that it is based on the private ownership of highly socialised means of production. Patents are part of the legal superstructure of that society, turning devices and processes developed by social effort into private property. With ownership goes the right to a rake-off, when the patented item is produced commercially. In modern industry large laboratories, employing scientists and technicians and equipped with expensive apparatus, are needed to do research and development work. The main part of this work involves applying what has already been invented and it is not very often something that can be patented is discovered. It must be remembered that the owner of patent is the organisation employing the scientist. They provide the equipment, materials and even the problem to be solved. It is easy enough for the employer to arrange things so that the job for which a patent is applied has been worked on by so many people that not one of them could claim ownership. In fact patents are registered in the name of the firms or perhaps its technical or research director. On the odd occasion that an aggrieved technical worker feeling cheated out of a patent sues his employer all he can expect is the loss of his savings in legal expenses for the dubious honour of having had a go.

Like anything else under capitalism the patent system has constantly to be revised. This is largely due to the fetter it imposes on technical development. In their quest for profit capitalist firms take up anything they think will help this and in doing so find that the know-how they need has to be paid for as it is private property. Hence there is either duplication of effort through trying to find substitutes or royalties are paid. In earlier times a patentee determined to have his way could cause a hold-up in technical development. One instance in Britain was the long dispute over the rights to the process of vulcanising rubber in the middle of the 19th century. At that time rubber had immense possibilities but suffered from one great drawback, its instability. On a warm day it melted; on a cold day it cracked; it dissolved in contact with oil and even perspiration; and lost its clastic properties after only a little use. Efforts were made in Britain, America and on the Continent to overcome this. The solution was founded in America by a process known as vulcanisation. The discoverer, Goodyear, being penniless was unable to patent the process for a few years and by that time patents had been taken out in Britain by a manufacturer called Hancock who had obtained samples of the vulcanised rubber, analysed them, reproduced the process after a fashion and patented it. His patented process was not as good as Goodyears but control of the patent enabled him to keep the Goodyear process out of Britain for several years. The result was the stagnation of the rubber industry in Britain so that once the Americans overcame this obstacle they had easy picking in the British market.

Patent laws have been amended many times since and the rights of patentees restricted. Yet expensive litigation still takes place. The Rolls Royce versus Rateau case is a recent example. It lasted 49 days and expenses were estimated at more than £400,000. The importance of the case can be judged by the litigants. Rolls Royce, Europe’s largest aero-engine producer, against Rateau, a French firm which forms part of a semi-nationalised company in which America’s Pratt and Whitney, the worlds largest aero-engine producer, has a share. Had Rateau won back payment of royalties would have been due not only from manufacturers but also from the British government which had been involved in aero-engine research. A minimum estimate of the royalties due at one per cent was £3 million. Which all shows what production is about. The division of profit was the point at issue and the technicalities of the machine were the object which had been produced to get the profit. The item under dispute could have been anything from razor-blades to a process for the production of synthetic fibres for it is the question of who has the right to the income from the patent that gives rise to the litigation not that of putting the historical record right as to who first thought up the idea. All this is a far cry from the dream world of the clever mechanic and his invention.

Another aspect of the patent system which causes headaches is the process of establishing the patent. In Britain this is looked after by a government agency whose task it is to establish the validity of any claim. This involves checking whether the invention has or has not been discovered before. With the growing technical complexity of industry the number of applications for patents grows and so also the difficulties facing the Patent Office. The job of establishing the novelty of a claim can only be done by skilled scientists and technicians and the task of searching through records is slow and laborious. With the international nature of capitalism the same application will be made in several countries and there is an international body with offices in Berne. All this is part of the waste of capitalism as not only does the industrial research and development have to be done but also additional resources have to be devoted to establishing ownership. Which would be unnecessary in a rational society.
Patents are part of capitalism’s fetter on production. Although most cases are lost and the patentee is unable to prove infringement due to the expense involved. Only the largest firms are in a position to go to law. With patents certain products can be monopolised and prices kept well above what they would have been had the know-how been freely available. The same happens internationally so that countries most in need of industrial know-how must pay the advanced capitalist powers for it. Generally their need for aid helps make them respect patents. Of course this does not always happen. Russia and Japan gained a large part of their industrial knowhow through copying, and ignoring such niceties as paying up. Now that they have become established powers in the world of capitalism and have industrial know-how of their own to sell they issue licenses and accept payment of royalties in the time-honoured fashion.
Socialists have no proposals for reforming the patent laws either to give the small man a chance or to prevent monopolies and price-rigging or to give the emerging capitalists of Africa and Asia industrial know-how on the cheap. In fact all these demands are but the reflection of sectional interests within the capitalist class. Rather we go for another proposal: Socialism where technical development will be devoted solely to satisfying man’s needs and not for the profit of a minority. In that situation patents, copyrights, trade marks and the like will no longer be needed.
Joe Carter