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Patents Kill Update: Volunteers 3D-Print Unobtainable $11,000 Valve For $1 To Keep Covid-19 Patients Alive; Original Manufacturer Threatens To Sue

[Update: According to some updates, the earlier reports were possibly somewhat inaccurate. I’m not surprised; journalists and others often mangle IP reports. I was myself wondering “gee, why don’t I see a link to a patent number”. Apparently the patentee (if it is that) didn’t “threaten” (not explicitly, anyway) and the $11k price was exaggerated. None of this affects my main point, which is the benefit of having principles. Here’s what probably happened: some Italian company had several international patents on this valve plus some kind of Italian/European version of FDA approval: “we were contacted at the end of last week for manufacturing details of a valve accessory but could not supply these due to medical manufacturing regulations”. And FDA type regulatory approval works similar to how a patent monopoly works. The bottom line is the combination of the patent system, plus the FDA-type “medical manufacturing regulations” results in some manufacturers having a quasi-monopoly on the supply of a product, which results in reduced supply and increased price. It doesn’t matter whether it’s $3 or $11k. The point is that others are generally/vaguely aware of this patent/regulatory threat, which is precisely why the doctors here were leery of reverse-engineering this valve, and why the manufacturer was leery of release to them the 3D design files, and why the good Samaritans here were leery of releasing their hacked data to other third parties. All this is caused by the patent and IP/copyright system. Without IP, 3D files would quickly be circulated and leaked; people could use and share such info without fear of liability. The IP system dissuades use of property for productive purposes; again, it is death. My judgment stands.

Update: See also Joshua M. Pearce, “A review of open source ventilators for COVID-19 and future pandemics,F1000Research (2020), which states (citing AIP): “Putting aside the absurdity of patenting and then obstructing others from using obvious inventions in normal times, in the wake of a pandemic where millions of lives are at stake, it is intuitively obvious that this type of greed is no longer acceptable.”1 ]

I’ve written before that “Intellectual property is death.”2 I was not exaggerating. Copyright kills. Even trademark kills.3 But patents are the worst.4 There are some terrible examples one could mention. For just a few:

Libertarians–and others who claim to defend freedom, private property, free markets, human life and human prosperity–who are in favor of the patent system need to open their eyes to the most recent patent outrage and then strongly re-consider their support of the patent system. As I said above, IP is death. Patents kill. This is no joke. Consider the latest outrage:

In other words, some company is the sole supplier of this respirator valve, due to holding a patent on it, and sells it for $11,000, and it’s in short supply. Because of Covid-19 in Italy, people need respirators. So a couple of people got together and reverse-engineered the valve (the manufacturer would not give them 3D plans) and printed up the valves on a 3D printer for $1 each. Meanwhile, the manufacturer is threatening to sue them for patent infringement, and they are afraid to turn their own 3D designs over to others for fear of additional liability (they are probably concerned about some kind of vicarious liability from inducing others to infringe).

Of course, what the FedGov should do is grant compulsory licenses, as they threatened to do a few years ago in a patent-caused Cipro-shortage during the anthrax scares (Price Controls, Antitrust, and Patents). This would enable competitors to start making the valve, after paying a reasonable royalty to the patentee. But then the Objectivsts would start yapping that this is some kind of “taking” of the patentee’s “property rights.” Yeah. The Feds grant you an anti-free market, anti-competitive monopoly grant of privilege, and if they take some of it back, this is a “taking”. Nice.

Better yet, what the Feds should do is immediately repeal all IP law, especially patent and copyright.  But of course they won’t because of special interests (namely: big pharma, Hollywood, and the music industry) and confused “free market” advocates like libertarians and conservatives who don’t understand property rights and who perpetuate Locke’s confused ideas.5

I’ve also noted before that it seems almost impossible to imagine the current corporatist-state system cutting back, much less abolishing, patent and copyright, given the lobbying pressure and complete confusion surrounding this matter—but that fortunately, technology may permit us to eventually successfully evade these evil laws, similar to the way Uber itself has managed to do an end-run around the taxi-cab monopolies. In the case of copyright, thanks to the Internet, smart phones, torrenting and encryption, copyright “piracy” is now widespread. The publishing industry can hang a few high profile examples, but they can’t really stop it. Movies, music, books, software, can all be copied with ease—they are just information. That’s the nature of information and it’s why IP is unnatural and copyright can’t ever work or be just. As Cory Doctorow has written, now that we have the Internet, “the world’s most efficient copying machine”, “Copying stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today”. Copyright is doomed, because technology. Good.

Or as Internet pioneer John Gilmore once said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

But what about patents, which are even more harmful to human civilization (because patents impede technological innovation which is key to our prosperity as a human race)? When I’m asked, “Kinsella, it sounds like you’re right about what a menace patents are to humanity–so what can we do about it? What are the chances of abolition, or fundamental reform?” I say… well, again, I see little chance of political reform, at least so long as the modern state system clings on (which I expect for many more decades, but not forever). However, just as the internet and other tech has allowed copyright to be all but evaded, my hope is that 3-D printing will eventually, as it matures, allow the patent system to be evaded–for us to “route around” it. Think of the evolution of home printers: IBM Selectric type things at first, then clunky dot matrix, then ink jet and laser. Now you can buy a color laser printer for cheap. It’s amazing. Gutenberg, the founders, would be astounded. And now we can digitize things and copy then and email and upload and download them and encrypt them–photographs, music, paintings, movies, and share them with each other easily, encrypted and anonymous if need be.

3-D printing is not even in the dot-matrix era yet, but over time, it will improve, and will, perhaps, eventually reach the point where almost anything can be printed at home–smart phones and robots and even valves for respirators to treat Covid-19–using encrypted 3-D design files sent over secure torrents or whatever. This recent case in Italy is just a glimpse into this possibility. All hail the coming future of 3-D printer patent evasion and the downfall of the insidious, pernicious, evil patent system!

  1. Abstract: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) threatens to overwhelm our medical infrastructure at the regional level causing spikes in mortality rates because of shortages of critical equipment, like ventilators. Fortunately, with the recent development and widespread deployment of small-scale manufacturing technologies like RepRap-class 3-D printers and open source microcontrollers, mass distributed manufacturing of ventilators has the potential to overcome medical supply shortages. In this study, after providing a background on ventilators, the academic literature is reviewed to find the existing and already openly-published, vetted designs for ventilators systems. These articles are analyzed to determine if the designs are open source both in spirit (license) as well as practical details (e.g. possessing accessible design source files, bill of materials, assembly instructions, wiring diagrams, firmware and software as well as operation and calibration instructions). Next, the existing Internet and gray literature are reviewed for open source ventilator projects and designs. The results of this review found that the tested and peer-reviewed systems lacked complete documentation and the open systems that were documented were either at the very early stages of design (sometimes without even a prototype) and were essentially only basically tested (if at all). With the considerably larger motivation of an ongoing pandemic, it is assumed these projects will garner greater attention and resources to make significant progress to reach a functional and easily-replicated system. There is a large amount of future work needed to move open source ventilators up to the level considered scientific-grade equipment, and even further work needed to reach medical-grade hardware. Future work is needed to achieve the potential of this approach by developing policies, updating regulations, and securing funding mechanisms for the development and testing of open source ventilators for both the current COVID19 pandemic as well as for future pandemics and for everyday use in low-resource settings. []
  2. See The Death Throes of Pro-IP Libertarianism. In more context: “It is obscene to undermine the glorious operation of the market in producing wealth and abundance by imposing artificial scarcity on human knowledge and learning (see “IP and Artificial Scarcity“). Learning, emulation, and information are good. It is good that information can be reproduced, retained, spread, and taught and learned and communicated so easily. Granted, we cannot say that it is bad that the world of physical resources is one of scarcity — this is the way reality is, after all — but it is certainly a challenge, and it makes life a struggle. It is suicidal and foolish to try to hamper one of our most important tools — learning, emulation, knowledge — by imposing scarcity on it. Intellectual property is theft. Intellectual property is statism. Intellectual property is death. Give us intellectual freedom instead!” Patents are death. Patents are slavery. (See Roderick Long: Owning Ideas Means Owning PeopleThe Libertarian Case Against Intellectual Property Rights.) []
  3. Okay, I’m not quite sure if trademark law kills. But it’s definitely horrible too: “Trademark versus Copyright and Patent, or: Is All IP Evil?“; “The Velvet Elvis and Other Trademark Absurdities”; “Types of Intellectual Property”; “How to Improve Patent, Copyright, and Trademark Law”; “Trademark and Fraud . []
  4. Patent vs. Copyright: Which is Worse?” ; “Where does IP Rank Among the Worst State Laws?”  []
  5. See KOL 037 | Locke’s Big Mistake: How the Labor Theory of Property Ruined Political Theory. []
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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.