Albert Schatz, while serving as assistant to Selman Abraham Waksman in 1943, discovered the antibiotic streptomycin, which would prove to be a more effective remedy against tuberculosis than anything at the time.
Schatz has been recognized before; he was a co-patent holder along with Waksman. But notebooks recently made public reveal the extent of his contribution. If anyone was to receive a Nobel Prize two years later, it ought to have been Schatz, not Waksman. But over time, Schatz became somewhat of a footnote in the recounting of this major discovery. Waksman continued receiving royalties with Merck’s production of the drug, while Schatz received a total of $1,500, a kind of hush money from Waksman.
IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME
Even with Schatz’ co-holding of the patent, he was still left out in the cold. It is clear that whether or not patents exist, the giving of credit where it is due remains an uncertain thing.
Having one’s contributions forgotten by history is not something uncommon, and it is good fortune to be vindicated over time.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, had to make do with the $130 that DC Comics originally paid them in 1938. $130 for one of the most recognized cultural figures in history, worth billions!
To my mind, DC had no further obligation to Siegel and Shuster ― save for a relinquishing of the copyright that prevented the two, and everyone else for that matter, from publishing Superman-related paraphernalia. It was only after relentless public and legal pressure that DC would, nearly 40 years later in 1976, put “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” in subsequent Superman goods.
PATENTS DISTORT HISTORY
So yes, being duly credited is not a 100% sure thing. But I would maintain that copyrights and patents do not help, and may in fact harm the quest for truth of discoveries and inventions.
In Michele Boldrin and David Levine’s ‘Against intellectual monopoly,’ there are a billion examples of patents being usurped not by discoverers-inventors themselves, but those most adept and quickest to patent. The airplane was by no means invented by the Wright Brothers, the telephone not by Alexander Graham Bell, and the steam engine not by James Watt.
Indeed, lesser known figures had a more significant hand in their invention and development. Yet awarding the patents to these others would not have done justice to the myriad sources by which these inventions came to be.
Schatz’ contributions in the discovery of streptomycin were long forgotten, in spite of his patent. But then, the fact that production of the drug was limited via patents to certain entities, may have also restricted his ability to make use of his know-how during the time he was discredited.
WHAT IS THE ‘PROPERTY’ IN THE INTELLECT?
Perhaps it is a mistake to suppose at all that anyone should own what are really electric transmissions in individuals’ brains, the recreation (not transfer, which only applies to scarce items) of which is achieved via verbal or written communication.
Patent battles make it evident that the very existence of intellectual property (IP) turns profit and moneymaking into not a question of entrepreneurial use of capital by which mutually beneficial exchanges are made, but rather, a franchising game with the state as arbiter.
What a waste of capital, not just in legal fees, but in the fact that the development of useful ideas requires a process of elimination as achieved in the market itself. The evolution of the tablet, for instance, is occurring by the constant modification of what seems to work for people. Yet, this productive process of emulation and elimination has itself become the cause for legal action against competitors!
To interpret the litigant mind of a patent giant like Apple: Apple welcomes competition… except the competition that produces anything like what Apple sells.
Sans patents, what could a lowly lab assistant such as Schatz have done in 1943, if he wanted to be recompensed with recognition and money? For one thing, he could have offered his knowledge to any enterprising firm desirous of a new wonder drug. In exchange for the labor (not ideas per se) he would give to, say, Merck, they would have to pay him a certain sum up front, and a certain percentage of the profit made over a prearranged number of years.
|Download the .pdf here.|
This would have been a labor contract, not a government-sanctioned license to produce. The latter falsely implies that ideas could be owned and sold, while the former recognizes the unique service only Schatz could have provided.
But the actual situation was that Waksman and Schatz were partners of sorts, and it was only later that conflict and the jilting began. In that case, Schatz would not have lost as much by breaking off relations with his former professor, even if Waksman would be falsely credited for the discovery of streptomycin. Schatz wouldn’t have been as dependent on the $1,500 paid to him, if other drug producers apart from Merck were allowed to bring evolutions of the drug to market, by which Schatz’ labor would have been invaluable.
I admit that these are all ‘what ifs’ on my part, but they seem to make sense to me, or at least show that there are other means by which scientists could earn from their contributions aside from the IP franchising system, a system that seems to serve the political elite more than any others.