Interview with David Pretel

David presenting his paper “On Historicizing Institutional Diversity: Why and How Study Colonial Patent Cultures?” on September 12, 2019.

This week, we were supposed to welcome the participants joining us for our second PASSIM workshop, “Patents as Capital,”. But we’re not.

Awaiting September 7-10, 2021, when we look forward to doing so IRL, I reached out to David Pretel, who gave a presentation at our first workshop in 2019: “Intellectual Property for the Un-disciplined,” and asked him a few questions about the workshop and about his work.

Eva: David, we first met because you sent in a proposal to our inaugural PASSIM workshop, “Intellectual Property for the Un-disciplined,” (September 10-12, 2019). This workshop was deliberately designed to act as a kick-off for the project by exploring both theoretical and methodological questions around intellectual property as a research field, bringing together a group of people interested in the interdisciplinary study of patents in particular. Can you tell us a bit about why PASSIM caught your eye in the first place and what your hopes were for the workshop? And of course, what did you think of the event?

David:  Your call for proposals immediately caught my attention. I had recently finished a book on the history of the Spanish patent system during the 19th century, and by then, I was convinced about the benefits of an interdisciplinary study of patents.  My research lies at the intersection of the history of technology and economic history, but I also build upon the work of legal and STS scholars. I have a particular interest in exploring the international dimension of patent institutions as transnational patenting frequently involves not just the international transfer of rights, and eventually technologies, but also the transmission of ideas, perceptions and information. The examination of institutional diversity and administrative agency are other central issues of my work, particularly the role of intermediaries and lawyers in shaping and mobilizing patent rights, information and knowledge at the national, international and imperial levels.

The workshop was extremely well organized and intellectually challenging, yet friendly and supportive. In the workshop, I talked about the relationships between empires and patent rights. I challenged the standard view of colonial patent regimes as imposed by imperial metropolis in a context of the making of an international patent system. Rather than advancing the idea that the global spread of patent regimes was the result of imperialism, in my presentation, I showed that the processes of empire-building resulted in multicentric and fragmented colonial patent cultures adapted to local conditions in which metropolitan states were distant authorities.  I am very grateful for the incisive comments and suggestions of the PASSIM team and the distinguished invited discussants.

Eva: As the PASSIM-team went through the submissions to the first workshop, we decided that it would be a great idea if we could invite one of the participants to stay on for a bit longer in conjunction with the workshop – and that we would do the same for the two subsequent workshops we were committed to hosting. We felt that this initiative would enable us to benefit from extending the discussions and networking of the workshop. We immediately saw that your particular disciplinary experience from economic history and your competence and interest in patents and colonial history, was a profile complementary what we already had in place. We were spot on, of course! Could you say something about your stay as a PASSIM “special guest” and what you took with you from your time with us in Norrköping and Uppsala – where you gave a talk at the Law Department and, I think, also reconnected with old acquaintances?

David: I was honoured of being the first PASSIM “special guest”, and I see now that the forthcoming guests are prominent scholars who have produced groundbreaking research on patents and technology studies. It was my first time in Sweden, but I felt at home all the time and everything was perfect (except a flight delay, for that, of course, I cannot blame PASSIM!). You and Mattis thought about all details and arranged a very intense tour of events, visits and restaurants!

I gave four talks in two weeks to very different audiences, so I had to adapt my presentations accordingly – difficult but rewarding. In Uppsala UniversityI gave a lecture to Marianne Dahlén’s students in law and a research seminar at the law department which was quite challenging for me as someone initially trained in economic history. I would also like to thank Marianne for her warm reception and for showing me around Uppsala. I especially enjoyed our fun visit to the Museum Gustavianum and its anatomical theatre (thanks for the photos!) All in all, my time as PASSIM guest was very productive as it allowed me to discuss our common research interests – such as the history of the organization of patent information and the backstage bureaucracy – not only at the workshop but in more informal situations.

Eva: This “mini-interview” takes place almost a year after your visit, and things could not be more different. As the Covid-19 pandemic struck during the spring of 2020, the world changed. As far as PASSIM is concerned, we decided to postpone our scheduled workshop, “Patents as Capital,” from September 2020 to September 2021. Of course, at the time of writing we don’t know anything about what Fall 2021 will look like. Fingers crossed that we’re able to pull off our workshop on “Patents as Capital,” in September 2021. This time, we’ll have two special guests: Mario Biagioli (UCLA) and Sarah de Rijcke from Leiden University. Covid-19 has of course caused postponements and cancellations of various academic activities such as conferences and workshops, but also made it difficult to undertake fieldwork as well as archival work. How has it affected you, David? Especially given that you work in Barcelona, a city hard hit by the pandemic?

David: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. The situation in Spain is dramatic as the country is not prepared to face this supervening situation. We are lucky to have excellent health professionals but the budget cuts of the last decade and the previous crisis have left the health system with fewer resources to deal at the same time with the pandemic and other serious illnesses. My impression is that the political response in Spain has been satisfactory, but another prolonged economic crisis will have devastating effects and deep inequalities in Spanish society.

The changes in the way we do our work as academics are much less dramatic – we are somehow privileged as we could keep working from home and teach online. Many events and research exchanges have indeed been disrupted. For instance, I was going to visit Harvard this autumn, but I’ve had to postpone it. The same for academic activities; I was going to present at several conferences this year, such as the AHA annual meeting, but they have been cancelled or postponed. I am sure there will be more opportunities in the future, though, we cannot stop doing plans.

However, for historians, the hardest is to continue writing and publishing without the possibility of carrying archival work at the moment.  I had planned archival research in Mexico and the United States during 2020 and early 2021, and I’ve postponed it, which means that some of my projects and publications are in standby.  The bright side is that we are slowly learning to teach and exchange ideas online. Of course, it is not the same as meeting in person, but non-stop travelling was unsustainable for the environment and for our personal lives.  I hope that when the pandemic is resolved – fingers crossed- we won’t come back to our old harmful habits and try instead to combine the online with the presential, when possible.

Eva: Looking two years into the future might seem a bit premature under today’s circumstances. Yet, PASSIM will come to an end in 2023 and for our final conference (which I think is likely to be something smaller, like a workshop or symposium) we will invite our “special guests” to join us for a discussion on the work that we’ve done in the PASSIM project. David, we hope to see you here in Norrköping for this concluding event, which will open for all sorts of questions on the future and the past of patents, as law, as information system, as documents. If you look ahead to 2023 and reconnecting with the PASSIM team; what are your thoughts on the theme “Patent Futures: A History”?

David: The theme of the final conference is very intriguing. As most historians, I feel more comfortable debating about the distant past and, therefore, I assiduously avoid talking about the future or give policy recommendations. That said, I find PASSIM final conference as an opportunity to learn about innovative approaches and discuss future research. In this regard, I’m interested in presenting my work on the early history of Latin America’s contested integration into the international patent framework between two ubiquitous historical landmarks: the 1883 Paris Convention and the 1994 TRIPS agreement. Another topic that I could discuss at your conference is the case of some early patents on techniques of primary processing of rainforest products and their itineraries from Latin American commodity frontiers to US and European research laboratories and patent offices.

But above all, I am looking forward to coming back to Norrköping and reconnect with the fantastic PASSIM team and its associated scholars and guests.

Eva: Thank you, David, for taking the time to answer my questions. The entire PASSIM team looks forward to meeting you again at the final conference!

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