Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book review: Working Within the Boundaries of Intellectual Property

I am a very fussy reader. I remember decades ago being appalled at a sentence in a best-selling book that, lacking a verb, made no sense. Years later, I had been enjoying Captain Corelli's Mandolin until Mr de Bernieres suggested that the Cyrillic alphabet was used in Greece. And more recently a friend's novel was spoilt for me by a mistake ("taught" instead of "taut") on the first page - his prose also turned out to be purple enough to make an Anglican bishop's outfit look colourless, which further detracted from a rather good story.

So when, also on the first page, in fact the third line, of this book - once I'd skimmed through the preliminaries, including endless pages of biographies of the contributors - I read that patents granted to American universities had "grown almost in order of magnitude" from 434 in 1983 to 3,259 in 2003, I knew all I wanted to know. The inclusion of the word "almost" makes it complete and utter mathematical rubbish. The fact surely is that the statistic has increased by an order of magnitude, no more and no less: you simply cannot have partial orders of magnitude. It has gone up from 4.34 x 10² to 3.259 x 10³ - an order of magnitude.

Why on earth use a concept like orders of magnitude anyway? Because it sounds learned? "Almost tenfold" would have worked (though it would have been very approximate). At least we were spared the misuse of the term "exponential".

My own writing is far from perfect, and I already know of entries in my recently-published Dictionary that I would write very differently with hindsight, so of course I risk attracting brickbats by picking fault with the work of others. The publisher should be ashamed of this one, though, and I think I am justified in mentioning it in connection with a work of scholarship such as this. If intellectual rigour is lacking there, might it also be lacking elsewhere? I have found nothing to suggest that it is - but one does not read books like this because one already knows the subject-matter but to learn something new. And this has a great deal to teach us.

Subtitled "Innovation Policy For The Knowledge Society", it was published on 4 March 2010 and is edited by Rochelle C. Dreyfuss, Diane L. Zimmerman, and Harry First, all from New York University School of Law. It is a follow-up to the same editors' Expanding the Boundaries of Intellectual Property, published by Oxford University Press in 2001.  At 568 pages and £85.00 it is a substantial piece of work, and its focus on the expansion and strengthening of intellectual property laws is a subject of huge importance which certainly doesn't get enough attention from practitioners, who often resemble turkeys enjoying an indefinite postponement of Christmas. I have a feeling that few practitioners are going to be reading this, though - their time is money - but I hope that the learning contained within it will percolate down from the realms of academe and generate more debate about whether intellectual property rights have become too strong.

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