Making Sense of the Recent Principiis Obsta Textbook Patent in the Light of Evolution

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Textbook piracy lends itself to the economics of appropriation. Other intangibles routinely appropriated include movie locations, genetic resources and the atmospheric sink. Appropriation by otherwise law-abiding citizens makes sense in the light of evolution.

The problem of unauthorized access goes well beyond the piracy of textbooks.The inventor of US Patent #8195571, Joseph Henry Vogel, Professor of Economics at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, sees coherence of his web-based system with other solutions to the varied problems of appropriation. A common thread is “bounded openness.”

For biotechnology, Vogel has long advocated bounded openness for access to genetic resources.The bounds would be disclosure in patent applications of the species utilized in R&D. Countries of origin would receive royalties proportional to their geographic share of the total habitat. He and co-authors summarize the argument in “Monitoring and Tracking the Economics of Information in the Convention on Biological Diversity: Studied Ignorance (2002-2011)”.

Analogous reasoning applies to geographic indications in the convention on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights. The US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is typical of locations falsified in the visual arts. Screenwriters have passed off Puerto Rico as Brazil, Cuba and even war-torn Iraq. Inasmuch as tourists choose destinations on the basis of landscapes, tourism is harmed through “geopiracy.” Nevertheless, justifications do exist for openness and any legislation on faithful attribution should be bounded by the exceptions (e.g., reckless endangerment of filming on location).

Bounded openness becomes counterintuitive when grappling with the appropriation of the atmospheric sink. In The Economics of the Yasuní Initiative (Anthem Press 2009), Vogel argues that economically poor-but-carbon-rich countries should be compensated for not extracting fossil fuels. In exchange, bounds would be placed on emissions through the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Public reception to bounded openness presents a puzzle. Although the policy recommendations are efficient and equitable, most of them are alien to the deep history of Homo sapiens. For example, copying is quintessentially imitation, which is foundational to learning and survival. As such, measures to prevent copying feel very wrong. Similarly, humans did not evolve with any real consciousness over anthropogenic climate change or mass extinction. Lacking such adaptations, vested interests skillfully manipulate suspicions over cap-and-trade of carbon emissions and land use regulations.

Fortunately, not every policy recommendation to thwart appropriation goes against human nature. Attachment to place makes tremendous evolutionary sense. Hence, the expansion of geographic indications to film locations should resonate widely, Hollywood notwithstanding.

The overarching implication of human evolution for economics will offend libertarians. Recognition of cognitive biases is a strong argument for restricting choice. In the case of textbooks, evolution may have biased the student to be oblivious to the risks of “torrenting.” The neurons networked with crime are not firing. One can only hope that the Principiis Obsta patent will make irrelevant that most natural temptation.


Media Contact Information: References for fact-checking and translations available from Joseph Henry VOGEL, josephvogel(at)usa(dot)net.

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