Law in Contemporary Society

The World Is My Oyster?

-- By SarahKim - 11 Mar 2022

A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner with a couple law school friends, determined not to let out a peep about law school, landlord-tenant law, or contributory negligence – all of which had been consuming our lives. It was through this conscious effort to steer the conversation away from anything law-related that I first learned of the Billion Oyster Project: a non-profit that has been working to restore the once-robust but now-barren oyster reefs across New York City, with the specific goal of restoring 1 billion oysters by 2035. Reading more about this project put a smile on my face – it gave me the tingly, heart-warming feeling that good news does sometimes.

History of Oysters and the Project

“The history of the New York oyster is a history of New York itself—its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtfulness, its destructiveness, its blindness, and—as any New Yorker will tell you—its filth.” The same oysters that were cheap and ubiquitous in early 17th Century New York soon became so overharvested that the oyster population could not be sustained without regulation in 1715. By the early 20th Century, with urbanization and exponentially-growing Manhattan landfills, New York City was no longer fit for habitation by oysters – in 1927, it closed its last commercial oyster bed.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 did its job, and now, despite still being polluted and unsanitary, New York Harbor is finally deemed clean enough for oyster reefs and other similar ecosystems to survive. The Billion Oyster Project was founded by Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski, who recognized the communal and environmental benefits of bringing oyster reefs back to New York Harbor – oysters filter water, protect against flooding or erosion, and serve as the foundation for the growth of many other species and marine wildlife. The founders focus on education and outreach to get students, volunteers, and local restaurants engaged in the effort. Since its founding, the Project has restored 75 million oysters in the New York Harbor area. They are not yet safe to eat from (and won’t be for a while), but the hope is that the project will carry on for generations to eventually bring vibrant marine life, cheap oyster eateries, and clean water back to New York City.

What Does This Mean For Me?

What started as an active avoidance of a discussion of the doom that is law school ironically got me thinking more about it. Why did hearing about the Billion Oyster Project particularly resonate with me? Why did I find it to be so much of a heart-warming and happy story?

Perhaps it’s the gut feeling that collective management of natural resources commons is good and monopoly is bad. Reconciling this instinct with my interest in intellectual property was a goal I set for myself even as early as when that interest first sparked. IP (or more generally, the intersection between science and the law) is what excites and fascinates me. It’s exactly what I was looking for when I walked out of the last day of my chemistry lab, wanting never to step in a wet lab ever again but hoping, still, to study and apply science. And I feel lucky to have found such source of intellectual stimulation quite early on in my life.

But the inherent flaws in the patent system are overt. No one needs to convince me that the manmade concept of a patent is often used for large corporations and institutions to gang up against the little guy, to steal credit for the work done by individuals, and to claim infinite “ownership” over an “invention” by making nothing more than minor adjustments. After all, it’s not too far from home that all of these abuses can be witnessed.

Abolishing the System

Only after coming to law school did I encounter serious discourse on abolishing the patent system – through multiple professors, through the writing of Boldrin and Levine, and more. It seems like each person has his own specific take on it, but they all share the same sentiment: that knowledge should be free, accessible, and uncorrupt. And that the patent system’s stated mission of “incentivizing and protecting innovation” is a hoax – empirically, stronger patent systems have actually stifled innovation and kicked new players out of the market.

At first this struck me as radical and unrealistic. I thought that so long as the patent system provided enough of an incentive for people to conduct research and innovate, it could never go away. I couldn’t imagine a single politician advocating for its destruction given the high stakes – namely, large corporations’ interests in maintaining a monopoly. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea grew on me. In particular, one thing Chris Morten said stuck with me: the patent system came into existence around the same time the first police force was established. Of course, the two are very different systems, each with its own distinct set of issues; the point is that the two institutions were formed at similar times, and are now similarly riddled with corruption and abuse. And yet we see many more people advocating for the abolishment of one than for the other.

Clearly, I don’t have the answer, both for myself (yet) and the world. I am still in the process of thinking and trying to reconcile. Professor Moglen framed the question for me well – is it possible to go to work as an IP lawyer and keep my conscience? He says yes, but given how vividly I remember the defeated way in which I walked out of his office after having this conversation, maybe deep inside I think no. Regardless of my answer now, I hope the next 10 weeks of work will begin to guide me in the direction that is right for me.

Hi Sarah,

I found your topic to be super interesting. I was not familiar with the Oyster Project and had not yet had exposure to patent law or the types or arguments against it. I was particularly intrigued by the analysis that stated that patents came out around the same time as a police force. While that comparison is riveting, I am still not convinced that all things should be without a patent. Part of living in our society is an sense of individualism and freedom. With this individualism, comes the ability make money from for our name, image, and likeness and our ideas. Because of this, I do believe people should be able to patent their ideas and be rewarded for their innovation and creativity. However, I do think there should possibly be a time limit on the patent and easy rules for others to access and use the idea at some point. This will benefit society as a whole. The comparison to past institutions is interesting because I think those institutions (prisons & police) for example present different sets of issues surrounding life & death. So to me the comparison is not entirely the same. I look forward to learning more about patent law based off your writings- Morgan

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r4 - 27 May 2022 - 18:33:25 - MorganMartin
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