A Japanese Nobel laureate blasts his country’s treatment of inventors


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The Japanese Nobel winner who helped invent blue LEDs, then abandoned Japan for the U.S. because his country’s culture and patent law did not favor him as an inventor, has blasted Japan in an interview for considering further legislation that would do more harm to inventors.

In the early 2000s, Nakamura had a falling out with his employer and, it seemed, all of Japan. Relying on a clause in Japan’s patent law, article 35, that assigns patents to individual inventors, he took the unprecedented step of suing his former employer for a share of the profits his invention was generating. He eventually agreed to a court-mediated $8 million settlement, moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and became an American citizen. During this period he bitterly complained about Japan’s treatment of inventors, the country’s educational system and its legal procedures.

…”Before my lawsuit, [Nakamura said] the typical compensation fee [to inventors for assigning patents rights] was a special bonus of about $10,000. But after my litigation, all companies changed [their approach]. The best companies pay a few percent of the royalties or licensing fee [to the inventors]. One big pharmaceutical company pays $10 million or $20 million. The problem is now the Japanese government wants to eliminate patent law article 35 and give all patent rights to the company. If the Japanese government changes the patent law it means basically there would no compensation [for inventors]. In that case I recommend that Japanese employees go abroad.”

There is a similar problem with copyright law in the U.S., where changes in the law in the 1970s and 1990s has made it almost impossible for copyrights to ever expire. The changes favor the corporations rather than the individual who might actually create the work.

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6 comments

  • Garry

    I’m not sure that benefits of inventors are all that better in the US vs. Japan. Companies in the US typically are assigned patent rights of inventions made by their employees. The employee appears on the patent as Inventor, and the company as Assignee (the Inventor receives no real benefits, which all go to the Assignee). Some companies give bonuses for inventions, with a few sticking to the traditional $5 bonus, which undoubtedly went a lot further back in the 1800s than it does now.

    By the way, it used to be that the Inventor appearing on the patent was not necessarily the actual inventor, which is why Edison has so many inventions to his credit (in essence, he invented the research lab, and many inventions credited to him personally would, under the current system, be credited to his employees who did the actual inventing).

    On the other hand, having lived in Japan I know that “Japan Inc.” (a combination of the government and the big companies) has a long and storied tradition of doing their best to mess over the little guy, even more so than here in the US. Luckily, there have been changes, although very slow, towards more fairness.

  • Greg P

    One has only to look at the difference between Britain and France early in the 19th century to understand this phenomenon. Since they started the industrial revolution, Britain was full of science and invention, spurred on by free enterprise and the tenets of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Meanwhile, the French government sought to own and control all scientific progress in that country. Nothing could be done without the official “approvals,” and in some cases it took a century for developments to be realized. Capitalism may be the worst system on earth, but it’s still better than all the alternatives.

  • Edward

    More likely, Britain had tenets of the right to life, liberty, and property — a popular philosophy of that time. Thomas Jefferson, et al., changed it to “pursuit of happiness” so that the founding documents to their new country would not provide justification for a continuation of slavery.

    The US Constitution continued the colonists’ entrepreneurial spirit through Article One, Section Eight (Eighth Power of Congress) telling the US to encourage ingenuity and invention through a patent/copyright/trademark process (which is specified, in that section, to be secure only for a limited time — not virtually forever, as Robert points out is the current practice for copyrights).

    This is one of the reasons why the US has “American Exceptionalism” and France (for example) does not. We the People are encouraged to be productive and inventive. Having the right to own (non-human) property, and the security thereof, is one of the greatest incentives to produce and prosper that has ever been invented.* It is one of the foundations of capitalism. A reward for building a better mousetrap (even if “better” is a less expensive one, by using fewer resources) is virtually assured, and the reward is given to the inventor by way of profit from the production of his writing, product, device, or method.

    These rewards inspire improvements in products or services, which make our lives better, make us happier, and make us more productive with the resources that we have. This is why capitalist countries do so well and socialist (including communist and fascist) countries do not. After all, the US went from literally a backwoods village that couldn’t feed itself, in the beginning of the 17th century, to the world’s economic powerhouse that saved the world from two world wars, only three centuries later. No other country has ever achieved so much in so little time.**

    Nobel physics laureate Shuji Nakamura appreciates being able to be rewarded for his innovation and ingenuity, and the rest of us are better off for it.

    Our laws are typically written so that we are free to do what we want unless there is a law against it (which is why there are so many laws pertaining to fraud and not just one law outlawing fraud — e.g. mail fraud vs. wire fraud vs. fraud in general). As you, Greg, point out, other countries (e.g. France) often prevent their people from doing things unless there is a law or ministry that allows it.

    * Slave owners tended to be unproductive, as they had their slaves to do the work, but the slaves had little incentive to be productive as they rarely got to profit from their productivity (even US slaves had property rights, and they could profit from “moonlighting” work and buy themselves and their families out of slavery — talk about prosperity!). No wonder the Confederacy lost the (un)Civil War; they couldn’t keep up with Union productivity.

    ** Although Argentina was another economic leader, until the Perones (of “Evita” fame) came to power.

  • PeterF

    I have always felt that the U.S. Patent office was one of the greatest things ever created by the constitution. It has enabled many people to benefit from their ingenuity who would not otherwise have profited, I believe this is the reason why humans lived virtually the same existence from prehistoric times until the United States came into being. Even so, strange and wondrous inventions are sometimes discovered in barn lofts that had they been mass-produced two hundred years ago would have revolutionized the world. A corporation that has the resources to employ engineers and then produce and market an invention that otherwise may have never been developed serves a role in the advancement of the human condition. My father was named on several patents for which he received token bonuses, but he was otherwise paid well. He may not have been able to produce any of these things had he not been on a team.
    But I do believe that the corporate money grab that resulted in the changed patent law will eventually result in the slow down of new products because engineers of the future will have less incentive to be forthcoming with their ideas.

  • Canada had the chance to have British culture, French cuisine, and American technology. Unfortunately they opted for American culture, British cuisine and French technology…
    (If you have any Canadian friends its a good idea to step back a pace when you tell them this)

  • Edward

    Most historical accounts that I come across will associate the current world prosperity with the industrial revolution. People lived in just about the same level of poverty (by our standards) for all of history, with occasional, slowly accumulating improvements to their technologies and lifestyles.

    I think that you are right. It took intellectual property (IP) protection in order for the industrial revolution to take place.

    Once patents, copyrights, and trademarks protected creativity — starting in Europe — the industrial revolution was able to reward the innovators, and everyone else profited, too, as lifestyles and lifespans increased. No one was able to copy a book or a product without the IP owner’s consent, nor were they able to fool the consuming public with bogus products labeled as though they were the good stuff.

    Rather than the innovators stealing from everyone else, as some would have you believe, everyone else chose to purchase what the innovators created — specifically because it made their lives better — and it was in these choices where the innovators profited. Everyone wins, nobody loses, each party benefits by getting what he wanted.

    Yes, Peter, property rights, especially IP, changed the world for the better, despite what the moochers and looters say. But I think that there are other very important freedoms in the US Constitution in addition to the Patent Office, as well as the *way* in which it is written to emphasize the importance of our freedoms over the importance of the government — something which few documents (e.g. US Declaration of Independence) and no other Constitution (including the UN Declaration of Human Rights) do successfully.

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