Intellectual Property Rights Violation and Importance of Ethics

Published in Human Resources Articles category by MBA Skool Team , Published on July 24, 2014

We today are living in the Information Age. Never before in the history of mankind has possession of information, been more valuable. Gone are the times when money’s worth used to be measured by how much of a particular item it can buy. In today’s times, what’s of value is information and information is what is most expensive. If this wasn’t true, how else could one explain the sale of a small company with only 52 employees for a whopping $19bn (WhatsApp)!  WhatsApp after its first four years of operation had a user base of 419 million, as compared to 145 million for Facebook and 123 million for Gmail (after first 4 years of their operations). It’s the massive amount of information that these users generate which is valued so highly.

With advances in technology and the increasing penetration of internet a lot of content is being generated each day. Countless people share their ideas and opinions through several platforms. Isn’t it necessary then to have mechanisms and safeguards in place to keep this content secure?

Another effect of the rapid advancements in technology is that today nothing is really impossible for man. The expression by the famous American author Napolean Hill, “What the mind of a man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”, though said in a different context, holds absolutely true today in the face of modern technological advances. Seriously! For instance, who could have thought that a little toy like flying object (a drone) could someday deliver them a pizza? But alas, someone did! In such times it is really easy for someone to ‘steal’ a concept and build upon it.

In 1684 and 1686 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician and scholar published articles which marked the invention of calculus. In 1704 however, Isaac Newton published a book called the ‘Opticks’, asserting himself as the father of calculus. Apparently, Newton had written about this branch of mathematics as early as 1665 and 1666 (he called it the ‘science of fluxions’ though) but had shared this work with only a few colleagues. Leibniz was accused of plagiarizing some of this original work. The issue couldn’t be settled until 1716 when Leibniz died. Mathematicians and historians today believe that this branch of mathematics was co invented by both these scholars independently at around the same time.

Intellectual property (IP), as defined by World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. The importance of IP was first recognized in the years 1883 and 1886 in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works respectively, and has since then been increasing. Various measures have been developed to preserve and protect different types of IP, such as Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights. But still after around 128 years, have we been successful in our endeavours? Can today a firm or an individual be assured that any sort of innovation, design, formulation, logo, or artwork that it creates will be safe from theft or illegitimate use by someone else? Sadly, no.

In August 2003, three software engineers working for Ishoni Networks India Private Limited get arrested for using the company’s software code for their own venture- Ample Wave Communication Network.

In 2011, S. Victor Whitmill, a tattoo artist, files a lawsuit of copyright infringement against Warner Bros Entertainment Inc. for using one of his designs. We all remember the scene from Hangover 2 when Stu Price, the dentist played by Ed Helms, wakes up after a night of drunken madness to find a tattoo on his face, very similar to the one which Mike Tyson has. Turns out Whitmill was Mike Tyson’s tattoo artist and the tattoo design had been copyright protected. The case reached a settlement outside court.

This brings us to the issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). This was first brought up to an international level by the WTO through its agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), effective from 1st January 1996, which specified some minimum levels of regulations to be followed by all member countries when it comes to preserving IPRs.

In India, several legislations have been constituted for the same purpose. The major ones being:

  • The Patents Act, 1970 and its subsequent amendments in 2002 and 2005
  • Indian Copyright Act, 1957 and its amendment Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1999
  • The Trade Marks Act, 1999
  • The Designs Act, 2000

A lot of administrative changes have also been made by the Government of India to this effect. These include the creation of the post of Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks (CGPDTM) in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, and the setting up of the Copyright office in the Dept. of Education under the Ministry for HRD.

Despite these efforts however the condition is continuously getting worse. According to a report published in 2012 by KPMG, the major emerging frauds in India are Cyber Crime, IP theft, counterfeiting and piracy and Identity Theft. The report estimates counterfeit and pirated goods in India to be worth over 5 billion USD.

There could be several factors responsible for such a trend:

  • Intellectual property is by nature intangible. It’s very easy to steal something which can’t be seen or held or measured, isn’t it? The very same nature of this property also makes it difficult to trace, thereby making settlement of IPR disputes a very complicated, expensive and difficult affair.
  • There is also a bit of ambiguity associated with Intellectual Property. People do not sometimes realize when and how their actions and creations encroach upon someone else’s intellectual property. Warner Bros Entertainment Inc., as mentioned in the beginning of this article, was a victim to such an ambiguity.
  • Many even perceive Intellectual Property Rights violation to be a victimless crime. That means they do not believe that their act of theft actually harms anyone. This may sound like a very naïve theory but is in fact the reason why even the highly learned and qualified professionals sometimes end up committing such violations.

Let us consider a story:

Students in a B- School are given an assignment to “Study the nuances of Banking Industry and suggest how IT can streamline its operations”. The students are specified with a date to submit their reports. All students are expected to come up with innovative and practical ideas. As the due date approaches all the students get cracking and start preparing their reports. There is one student (say, Rahul) however who is not so serious about this assignment and does nothing towards its completion. A couple of days before the due date Rahul while working in the Computer lab accidentally finds a copy of this assignment saved on the desktop of one of the computers, most probably worked on by the student who used this computer just before him. Now Rahul is faced with the ethical dilemma, whether or not he should use this work for the completion of his own assignment? Rahul decides to take this assignment file, make a few changes in it and produce it as his own work on the due date.

Has Rahul committed a theft of Intellectual Property? Has Rahul violated someone’s Intellectual Property Rights?

This story could come across as something very normal. Students across disciplines might be indulging in such acts on a regular basis. For some it might not be any big deal. Well, is it really not?

Now suppose the story continues thusly:

Rahul gets an A+ for this assignment. The student whose work was used by Rahul gets an A-. Curious to find out what exactly was missing in his report, this student gets hold of a copy of Rahul’s assignment. On going through the report he realizes that he is in fact reading his own work, presented in a slightly tweaked manner.

Is Rahul’s act still victim-less?

In this case Rahul’s intention was not to score the highest mark for the assignment. His intention was merely to submit a decent report on the due date. But what if the intentions were not this innocent? Human greed could sometimes present intentions that are otherwise. The desire to succeed, to get rich, to excel could make us do things that may not be morally and ethically right.

What is the solution then? How can we prevent our ideas and our creations as individuals, and our designs, our processes and our symbols as organizations from the threat of being replicated, tampered, altered and stolen? The answer to this lies in cultivating good moral values and ethical mannerisms in the society through our education system. Enforcement of laws and formation of judicial committees would not serve the purpose in the long term. People and emerging professionals must be instilled with the sense requisite to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Only when all the budding engineers, doctors, managers, civil servants, and other professionals responsible for shaping the future of our societies and nations hold similar beliefs about right and wrong and resolve to not let greed get the better of them, can the problem of IPR violation be curbed.

It is not that nothing has been done to address this issue. Schools in India and across the world teach Moral Science. Professional courses teach subjects like Engineering and Business Ethics. But how much importance do we give to such subjects, is something we really need to think about.

The article has been authored by Pawan Mishra, TAPMI, Manipal.



Views expressed in the article are personal. The articles are for educational & academic purpose only, and have been uploaded by the MBA Skool Team.

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