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Patents as Scientific Information, 1895-2020

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PASSIM (Patents as Scientific Information, 1895-2020)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30

Patents as Scientific Information, 1895-2020 (PASSIM) is a humanities-based project seeking to explore and address the seminal relationship between patents, disclosure and information from the end of the nineteenth century up until the present.

Problem/issue being addressed
Patents tend to stir up mixed emotions. Some see them as incentives for innovation and public good. Others suggest they stand in the way of innovation and public good. Although such debates have raged in earlier historical periods, they have reached new heights in contemporary research-intensive environments. The controversial Bayh-Dole Act from 1980—which opened the door for federally funded U.S. universities to patent their research—is often seen as the starting-point for the current era of rent-collecting demons known as patent “trolls” and layers of counter-productive patent “thickets,” that some claim hinders, rather than encourage innovation. In many ways, patents have come to symbolize an ongoing and dangerous commodification of knowledge in research and science.

What are the overall objectives?
In the eye of the storm stands the patent bargain. Since the mid nineteenth-century, a limited monopoly right in an invention can only be secured by the disclosure of enabling information. The underlying rationale is that patents—alongside other documents such as journal articles, proceedings and monographs—constitute a primary source of information, beneficial to society in its ability to generate new innovation/knowledge. But what if the bargain—patents contain information, information that serves as the basis for new innovation—is bogus? PASSIM’s objective is to unpack the multifaceted relationships featured in the patent bargain, recombine them in unexpected and creative ways and develop from that conceptualization a new narrative of patents and intellectual property (ip). Anchored in historical knowledge but designed to accommodate interdisciplinary dialogue on theory and method, PASSIM stretches across past, present, and even into future knowledge infrastructures. By querying the legitimacy of the patent bargain, PASSIM focuses on the very core of the challenges facing contemporary knowledge infrastructures, and asks provocative questions about what is meant by “disclosure,” “information,” and “knowledge,” in twenty-first century research environments. The study of patents as scientific information from the end of the nineteenth-century to the first decades of the twenty-first tells an untold story of the networks of people, artifacts and money that shaped the current knowledge infrastructure into its present form. Patents, in their capacity to both “enclose” and “open” information, represent an especially challenging, important, and rewarding intellectual property by which to re-think the formation and consolidation of information as a central component of modern life. Transgressing the traditional divide between the natural sciences and the humanities, PASSIM delivers an innovative new framework for understanding of how information is disseminated and used (or not), within contemporary knowledge infrastructures.

Why is it important for society?
Debates over the legitimacy and rationale of copyright, patents and trademarks in the political economy of information have raged for many years without signs of abating. Universities, research centers, policy makers, editors and scholars, research funders, governments, libraries and archives; all have things to say on the legitimacy of the patent system, its relation to innovation and the appropriate role of intellectual property in research and science, milieus that are of central importance in the knowledge-based economy. For quite some time, the conventional “enclosure/openness” dichotomy seems to have provided a knee-jerk response of pro or con, but PASSIM suggests that the complexity of patents as scientific information provides new perspectives on what we mean with “public knowledge.”
PASSIM’s most important common output to date is the first of altogether three planned workshops. “Intellectual Property for the “Un-disciplined,” which took place in Norrköping between September 10-13, 2019. The main purpose of this first workshop was to explore intellectual property as an interdisciplinary endeavor, providing a baseline platform for the work to follow. Participants included a mix of junior/senior scholars across a number of disciplines, as well as invited commentators who matched the intended interdisciplinary breadth. The discussions were all filmed and can be accessed via As a part of each workshop, a “special guest” among the participating scholars is invited to stay with the PASSIM team for a few days extra, giving a seminar and interacting with the host institution. David Pretel, economic historian at Department of Humanities & Institute of History Jaume Vicens Vives at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, was PASSIM’s first such special guest. We see this “special guest” program as an important way of strengthening PASSIM’s larger research network in time for the final conference. The second achievement so far is the first PASSIM article, written by the PI and published early 2019. The article sets out the historical and conceptual framing of the project, drawing out the main trajectories that will be explored by the team and in individual contributions. Together with the “interdisciplinary conversations,” we have initiated with a research seminar on microfilm in the spring of 2019, these three outputs have positioned the project in its first phase, and prepared it for its second.
Whether or not patents do contain scientific information is perhaps less interesting than the various modes by which stakeholders in the patent system claim that they do. PASSIM looks at the historical trajectories and overlaps between people, networks, and institutions that has formed our understanding of patents, situating them in relation to different media technologies, from index cards, via microfilm to the screen. It is in this intersection between law, information and media technologies that PASSIM opens up a new research field: the consolidation of modern patents and the consolidation of the modern information era provides a continuum allowing for a creative new approach to interdisciplinary scholarship on intellectual property. Although published results and outputs from the team as well as from individual scholars working in the project largely will appear towards the end of the project, PASSIM continuously makes its activities available on its website and through social media. A humanities-based analysis of the changes and movements PASSIM addresses represents crucial added value when trying to understand the current (and future) significance of how intellectual property functions in knowledge infrastructures. PASSIM will not only expand the horizons of what interdisciplinary scholarship in intellectual property can achieve, it will also provide a key intervention into the very legitimacy of the current intellectual property regime, demonstrating that the humanities provide crucial tools by which to achieve such a goal.