Interdisciplinary Reflections on ‘Patents as Capital’ with Vitor Henrique Pinto Ido


Vitor Henrique Pinto Ido is a phd candidate at University of São Paulo, Brazil. This blog post is the first part in a PASSIM blog series where invited scholars reflect on patents as capital from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Vitor Ido is on twitter: @vitor_ido



1.why do you study patents?


It started almost as a coincidence. Back home, at the University of São Paulo, a course on “intellectual property and access to knowledge” became mandatory right after I became a student in 2009. The issue of how patents may curb access to medicines was a hot topic as Brazil had just issued a compulsory licensing for the patent of Efavirenz, a medicine for the treatment HIV/AIDS,, after failed negotiations to lower prices. The country – in its paradoxical position in world affairs and in the global economy – had actively defended the interests of developing countries in intellectual property issues at multilateral arenas (for instance, during the negotiations of the TRIPS Agreement), but had also approved relatively stringent domestic industrial property and copyright laws that created many obstacles for access. This was an easily identifiable problem: for instance, given the uncertainty on a copyrights’ exception or limitation for educational purposes, we actually could not share the course texts that would precisely discuss the role of intellectual property. So, in a sense, I study patents (and intellectual property) to reflect on how they affect the issue of access more generally understood: to essential medicines, to cultural goods, to scientific knowledge, to diverse information. And how this seems even more relevant in societies such as Brazil, marked by long histories of exclusion and inequality. Whether we want it or not, this is often overlooked in the Western IP scholarship, unless it is dealing directly with developing countries as case studies. Patents felt like a particularly contested field in legal discussions that almost unavoidably leads to discussion of political economy and history. As such, in countries where law is often portrayed as “neutral” and “formal” by academics, but which contrasts drastically with the reality of how legal techniques concretely take place, patents are a starting point for these broader discussions on law and legal practices. Finally, a broader understanding of the functioning and logic of the patent system enables concrete interventions in reality: for example, supporting efforts to legally challenge an unmerited patent for a certain pharmaceutical, which can reduce prices and lead to increased access to medicines.


 2. how do you understand patents as capital? 


There is one commonly referred to paradox in the patent system: because it refers to “intangible goods”, information that circulates beyond borders and easily, the patent system constantly needs to deal with the international sphere; however, it is a system designed and still based on territoriality, which means that patents need to be granted or not by each different country. This framing is limited in terms of how the system really operates, and dismisses the material implications of patents (their documents and applications, the buildings constructed, etc.), but it is still interesting to draw a parallel with similar narratives on the transnationalization of capital flows, the general financialization of global capitalism, and the increasing commodification of “things” (i.e. that may be turned into commodities/assets and therefore traded in markets). Patents are part of this contemporary system, operating as new forms of generation of capital in the strong, conventional sense (perhaps in the Marxian sense even), which have raised the attention for already a long time on the risks of “new enclosures of the commons”, i.e. the privatization of information. It would be hard not to acknowledge the ties between patents and capital in this economic sense, and perhaps it is the backbone of the whole discussion. But there are often overlooked dimensions related to other forms of capitalization through patents, which for instance are identifiable in the arguments that associate patents with innovation. If more patents are a good proxy for “innovation” (which empirically is not), then patents are, at least partly, a sign of prestige for a certain scientific and economic community, but also a form of personal entitlement. This is basically a sense of prestige (sometimes remunerated by institutions and employers) for having created an “invention” that was worth receiving a patent. The problem is that this is a self-referred system: you are worthy because you have a patent and a patent is supposed to be granted to worthy applications.


One dimension that particularly interests me is how patents are related to notions of nationalism and modernity. In a sense, a patent that was granted by the USPTO or by the EPO has a different legitimacy and signaling mechanism to peers and markets as compared to one granted, for instance, by the Brazilian INPI or the Chinese CNIPA. In other words, market players often use the fact they have a patent in the United States or European Union as a sign of validity of its “asset” (the technology but also the patent), but will probably won’t do so for most other countries.  Why? I feel that at least part of the answer is in the entanglements with what the post/decolonial scholarship insists on: there may be a formal equality in the global order, but intrinsically the existing system of states is unequal. In this sense, a patent may be associated to other forms of capital, perhaps even a “national capital” so to say? This is only an intuition, but I would like to investigate this more.


3. how does your work relate to this understanding?


My PhD thesis deals with the political economy of a specific vernacular expression in China, the idea that the country is creating a intellectual property system “with Chinese characteristics”. This is formally adopted in high-level government and judicial authorities’ speeches, and evokes the idea of socialism “with Chinese characteristics”. China has recently become the biggest international applicant of patents, trademarks and designs, drawing attention for how this relates to the huge transformation of the Chinese economy, which can be simplified as a form of imperfect transition from “copy” to “innovation”. It also draws criticism that question the quality of the patents and other rights granted in China, as well as specifically from the USA the narrative of a continued forced technology transfer and “theft” of “American intellectual property”. In dialogue with what I could perhaps call a critical scholarship on patents and/as capital, I tend to argue that the numeric expansion of IP, also followed by a robust institutional development of specialized IP courts in China, reflects an association between patents and innovation (a always imperfect, if not misleading, association), but moreover an association between patents and modernity. This is particularly relevant as the scholarship on China has for a long time focused on the idea of a “cultural” clash between Confucianist values that are embedded in contemporary China (and used by the central government) and the protection of IP; in parallel, the changes in the global economy that have led China to a prominent political field are a fruitful channel to discuss what changes this shift has in the ways patents are valued in China. In a typical anthropological way of thinking, in my research, I decide to take the expression “IP with Chinese characteristics” not as purely State ideology or market rhetoric, but as something that has a functional role for Chinese policymakers and innovator companies – as well as unintended consequences. Perhaps, if it is true that there is this indirect association between valuing patents as a sign of modernity, my interest is then on how this leads to impacts on notions of what it means to be a “modern” or “developed” Nation (i.e. in this case modern means a country that fully respects IP, but also that has a lot of national IP). Subsequently, how this may or not impact even the way certain Chinese people perceive themselves in their network of social interactions.


4. what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of studying patents from an interdisciplinary perspective?


For those personally fascinated about patents and their “myths” interdisciplinary perspectives on patents literally open descriptions and analyses that are often completely ignored. Some of them can be broad and make us think philosophically on how something that seems to be so “technical” and specific such as a patent may be, as noted before, perhaps an entry point to understand Western cosmologies. But some may also be very grounded and contextualized. Although the objective of research certainly does not need to aim a pragmatic/concrete intervention in the world, I feel that an important benefit stemming from an interdisciplinary perspective in patents is the possibility to provide new insights on real world issues related to patents. For instance, the impacts of artificial intelligence for the patent system: both if countries should grant patents for “AI-generated” and “AI-assisted” inventions and the impacts for the use of AI in patent application processes (for example, conducting a novelty and inventive step search – two basic requirements for a patent to be granted – with AI tools may be more rigorous, but also reinforce certain biases). Another example is on what falls under the scope of “non-patentable subject matter”, and which therefore do not receive patent protection. This has become more and more relevant in discussions about genomic therapies, patenting of living organisms and their laboratory modified versions, among others. It also refreshes notions that are long ascertained, such as the figure of the “individual inventor”, something that indigenous traditional knowledges for instance may present a counterpoint. Of course, all of this brings additional difficulties to create engagements with people from different backgrounds (e.g. a patent attorney, an inventor, an industry representative, a policymaker, academics from other areas, including in law). In some cases, an “interdisciplinary” perspective is confounded with a reduced application of one “discipline” to another: this is the case of the “law and economics” literature that applies microeconomic orthodox tools to understand patents as “incentives” that reduce a “market failure”. Differentiating interdisciplinary work that aims at integrating different aspects, including not understanding law as a monolithic body of knowledge and not dissociated from material practices, is very important. Finally, because of so many strong economic interests involved in the protection of patents, interdisciplinary views may be often unjustly criticized if they propose a critical view – this is an instance where, in my view, academics struggle with the impact of economic interests.


5. your questions to others in the workshop group (if there is anything you’d like others to comment or discuss)?


Really looking forward to learning more from this amazing group. Perhaps one general issue I would have in mind is how the scholarship relates – implicitly or explicitly – with practitioners in the IP field (including negotiators in international organizations and scientists in laboratories), who may be not necessarily very welcoming of attempts to somehow challenge the foundations of the system they are so accustomed to.


Would you like to comment on Vitor Ido’s reflections? Please do so below or on twitter. @passimproject

Interdisciplinary Reflections on ‘Patents as Capital’: A Short Blog Series




The second PASSIM workshop, entitled ‘Patents as Capital’ was initially planned to take place at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm this autumn. We were enthusiastic over the response to our call for papers, as we received many great contributions from diverse disciplines and national contexts.

Unfortunately, in the midst of final preparations for the workshop, Covid-19 hit the world and it reshuffled our lives and the workshop plans. Now we are hoping to hold the workshop in 2021, either in person or online.

In the meantime, we wanted to initiate an interdisciplinary conversation around the issue of ‘patents as capital’, particularly with the view of highlighting some of the diverse disciplinary perspectives that this topical problem elicits. We invited three workshop participants to reflect on the theme that we will publish a series of blog.

Our hope is that these reflections will introduce and identify some central aspects of the critical issue of ‘patent as capital’. They will also serve as a useful record of some of the key questions raised ahead of the workshop next year.

Our first blog post is written by Vitor Henrique Pinto Ido, PhD candidate at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. It will be published shortly.

We will also publish posts from Susi Geiger, Professor of marketing & market studies, University College Dublin and Erkan Gürpinar, Assistant professor, Social Science University of Ankara.

Please, follow us here and @Passimproject on twitter.

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!

Fall 2020 thoughts


So, summer is almost over. Fall term has arrived, but in a different shape that what we’re used to. The Covid-19 pandemic completely dominated our lives—private and professional—during the Spring, and will continue to dominate our lives in the forseeable future as well. There is no doubt that our work in PASSIM has been affected. We’ve postponed our second workshop, originally planned for next month – “Patents as Capital” is now rescheduled for September 2021. Five of the PASSIM researchers submitted a panel entitled “Patents as Scientific Information – Four Translations” to the 2020 Annual Meeting of SHOT (Society for the History of Technology). Although we were delighted to be accepted, the conference has been postponed until Fall 2021, when we (José Bellido, Johanna Dahlin, Mattis Karlsson, Isabelle Strömstedt and myself) hope to be able to travel to New Orleans and meet old and new PASSIM acquaintances. Not being able to travel to conferences or hosting them ourselves is one thing, but far more problematic is the fact that fieldwork as well as archival research is now on hold. It really shows how much those desired “outputs” depend on “input” that we’re now unable to access and process in ways that we’ve become completely used to. I’m not sure it’s an altogether bad thing: at least not in terms of realizing how much we can do online in terms of meetings and mining digitized material from our home offices. However, the personal interaction and the stimulus of working in a group such as PASSIM cannot be replicated in any other format than IRL. Having said that, we hope to keep the PASSIM-momentum going during the Fall of 2020. We hope that you’ll follow us trying. And we hope that you’ll stay in touch.