Policy 14.3: What does a patent-free world look like?

In the previous posts, we have come to know what “bad” looks like when it comes to intellectual property. In the first post, we saw how patent trolls cost the economy billions, and in the second post, we saw how patents for drugs make medications unaffordable causing people to die.  

So, what does “good” look like?

The focus of this post is to explore how a world of possibilities opens to us once patents and copyrights are no longer a thing.

Open-source medication:

The State can act as a middle-man who will pay scientists, professors at university and others to research the cures to diseases. The State can then pay to manufacture the medication. As there are no patents, there are no on-going costs to pay to big-pharma thereby reducing the costs of healthcare. Consequently, ‘open-source medication' will result in lower cost healthcare for all of society.

The prohibition of patents in Islam and the obligation (fard) for the State to pay for health care (to be explored in future posts in sha Allah) is a good illustration of how the different parts of Islamic Law (yes, Shariah law) have the inherent quality of being harmonious with one another. One part of the law will automatically be in line with another part of the law though they are unrelated.

However, it's not much of a stretch to see how the State could play such a role given how the Capitalist state is currently involved in funding research and development (R&D). However, the big difference is that the Capitalist governments hands off these patents to big pharma and allows them to make millions of dollars off that free R&D. As noted in the Washington Post:

“What is remarkable about Taxol is this: It was discovered and developed by the federal government at substantial taxpayer expense. Yet it is now produced and priced exclusively by a private pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has made millions on the drug.”

In Capitalism, the costs are socialized, but the profits are privatized. In contrast, Islam will require all to bear the costs of medical research but then pass on the benefits of that research to the society as a whole.

Hardware and the service economy

As we discussed in this post, the issue of planned obsolescence is something natural in Capitalism: either get products to fail or "convince" people to throw away perfectly good stuff for the sake of profits. Technically, if the seller tells the buyer, there are defects in the product that sale is allowed in Islam. So, what would stop the ‘consumer society’ from forming in the Islamic State?

  • Planned obsolescence is a product of Capitalism: As noted in an NPR podcast, the Phoebus cartel was formed to produce poorer quality light bulbs because it would help them all make money if the consumer bought more light bulbs. Companies even had to pay fines if they made bulbs that lasted longer than 1000 hours. Consequently, the formation of this cartel is something that was a product of market forces that drive people to act in the best interest of generating profits for shareholders.

  • Monopolies and markets: Shares, bonds and other capital-raising mechanisms essentially allow companies to monopolize the market and destroy any competition (see here for Tyson’s “expand or expire” strategy, where Don Tyson realized that by buying out competitors he would effectively become immune to market forces). With interest and stocks prohibited in Islam, companies are naturally limited in size and therefore can’t monopolize the market. The implication is that new entrants can bring longer lasting product and defeat people offering purposefully defective products.

  • Partnerships and lack of patents:  As stated in the initial post of this series, engineers who learn how to make better products can start their own companies if their employers are forcing them to build products that go prematurely obsolete. And here is the key: these employers can’t sue them for patent violations because there are no such things as patents. Keep in mind that other individuals in society who have capital will seek to partner with such entrepreneurs because they can't make money through interest or stocks. They must invest in other businesses. So, they will be eager to invest in disruptive products that can displace incumbents.

Finally, the Khaleefah must intervene and stop this needless pillage of the earth based on the following the hadith which prevents the wasting of water for wudu (washing one’s self for prayer):

"That the Messenger of Allah (saw) happened to pass by Sa'd as he was performing ablution. Whereupon he said: Sa'd what is this squandering? Sa'd said: Can there be any idea of squandering (israf) in ablution? Whereupon he (the Prophet) said: Yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”. [Ibn Majah]

 Who doesn’t want a car that doesn’t breakdown and is easy to fix?

Capitalism, whose focus is maximizing shareholder value aka profits aka the freedom of ownership, has no incentive in building things to last. Islam, on the other hand, will provide a favourable environment to inventors and entrepreneurs who want to build durable products that meet the needs of buyers instead of investors.  

With longer-lasting goods and the absence of a consumer economy, there will be a greater need for people to fix things. That is, it will be cheaper to fix things then buy new ones. This is in contrast to the current consumer economy where we throw things away and buy new ones because it is more economical to do so.