Jon Kuniholm may not have been an obvious choice for an Open Access Week speaker at Duke, but as the final participant in a panel on global access to health information yesterday, he made a profound impression. The panel, called “Open Access, Local Action,” was all very interesting to the 30 or so staff, students and parents who gathered to listen (it was also listed as an event for Parents’ Weekend), but I want to focus on Jon’s presentation for this post because what he had to say was mostly new to me.
Jon is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering at Duke and a U.S. Marine Captain (Ret.). He is also an amputee, having lost his right arm in Iraq four years ago, and is thus a researcher with a personal interest in prosthetics. He talked to us about why the money the government spends on R&D for prosthetic research does not produce the kinds of progress that it ought — the lack of coordination and such a small market that there is little incentive to move from workbench to marketplace once the research money is spent. Jon offered potential solutions for this lack of progress that addressed both his very specific research and the broader problem of intellectual property restrictions.
In the very specific area of his own work on arm prosthetics, Jon envisions a remarkable collaboration, made possible by open hardware. He would like to make the hardware being developed to improve neural control of prosthetic arms open and offer it to researchers in the video game industry. His hope is that work undertaken to create new video game controllers (an area with a much larger market and much more money to spend) will also speed the development of better artificial arms, which has been largely stalled for quite a few years.
This is a remarkable vision, I think, of a win-win collaboration that would be founded on open sharing of technological development. Openness, as some have been pointing out for quite a while, can breathe new vitality into innovation, in spite of claims from some industries that free access can only stifle and discourage it. More information about the video controller project can be found at http://openprosthetics.wikispot.org/Open_Myoelectric_Signal_Processor
Jon Kuniholm does not stop with this vision of collaboration, however. He has a concrete and well-informed notion of the mechanisms needed to bring it about. I spoke with him briefly before the event about the intellectual property issues involved with this idea. He pointed out that hardware can be shared openly from its inception because patent protection, unlike copyright, is not automatic and is, in fact, quite costly to obtain. Where copyright does cover a work, regarding plans and specifications, for example, Jon advocates using the open source GPL, or General Public License. The problem with open hardware, however, would come if another party saw profit in the hardware and filed its own patent application Since patent restricts the use of an idea, this would halt all other development based on the same hardware unless license fees were paid. Since patents in the US law are granted to the first to invent (rather than the first to file a patent application), it would be possible, but very expensive, to fight such following-on patents. Jon’s suggestion here is that the open hardware movement create mechanisms to publish what is called “prior art” — the science that leads up to new developments –in ways that will be very obvious to patent examiners. The hope is that the ready availability of prior art will prevent patents from being issued that could shut down the kind of collaborative work based on open hardware that Jon and many others both need and foster.