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July 17, 2005

Whitney's Legacy

Story of Eli Whitney is very relevant in our times. Times of intellectual property debates, patent controversies and general concerns related to piracy.

Whitney's greatest contribution to American industry was the development and implementation of the American System of manufacturing and the assembly line, which he was the first to use when producing muskets for the U.S. Government. Whitney's concepts were later exploited by Henry Ford and others in manufacturing.

There exists question today over whether the cotton gin, which Whitney received a patent for on March 14, 1794, and its constituent elements should rightly be attributed to Eli Whitney; some contend that Catherine Littlefield Greene should be credited with the invention of the cotton gin, or at least its conception. It is known that she associated with Eli Whitney (along with other historical figures such as George and Martha Washington). Some historians believe that this invention allowed for the African slavery system in the Southern United States to become more sustainable at a critical point in its development.

Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, he was graduated from Yale College in 1792. While his ideas were innovative and useful, they were so easy to understand and reproduce that the concepts and designs were readily duplicated by others. Whitney's company that produced cotton gins went out of business in 1797.

He never patented his later inventions, one of which was a milling machine

Doron S. Ben-Atar, associate professor at Fordham University draws upon  Eli Whitney's story to drive home new findings regarding the evolution of intellectual property issues in US.

His central thesis captured in the book will remind everybody of other country - which apparently is following US but in a more secretive (and some would say more methodical way) way in exploiting the interpretations of intellectual property. That country is  China.

In Doron's word -

This book focuses on the role policies relating to intellectual property played in promoting the appropriation of smuggled technology which led to the emergence of the United States as the premier industrial power in the world. I study the evolution of the American approach to the problem of the relations between intenational boundaries and intellectual property from the colonial period to the age of Jackson. I examine the role of federal and state governments in that transformation and study the contradictory (some would even call it hypocritical) American policy. Officially, the young republic pioneered a new criterion of intellectual property that set the highest possible standards for such claims - worldwide originality and novelty. At the same time, through a variety of measures, the government endorsed and supported the violation of intellectual property of European states and individuals. The United States emerged as the world's industrial leader by illicitly appropriating mechanical and scientific innovations from Europe.

This issue needs to be understood at three levels - individual ownership(and later on corporate) of intellectual property, protection and interpretation within national jurisdiction and finally in the increasingly flat world protection  and interpretation across national boundaries.

Have we come full circle and finally met Eli Whitney in acknowledging the futility of patenting any technology?  In this world of fast innovation and fast replication - next generation Eli Whitney's will not be motivated to go to the patent office.

National level issues are well understood.  It's the global protection which is raising new concerns.  In a short history of the very idea of intellectual property - its only 200 yrs old ! - countries will be driven by their social-economic compass to interpret the property rights.  Be it providing cheap AIDS drugs to Africa or China proposing new technology standards to bypass patent regime, every country will use their domestic agenda to build new rules to either flout or to respect the ip issues. Near evangelical adoption of Open source in developing world is another aspect of this same phenomena.

Countries at the receiving end will definitely be quoting from Doron's work.

This issue will be here for some more time.

July 17, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink

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