In April 2021, I began an interview with Heesob Nam, a very important actor in efforts to expand access to medical technologies. Heesob unfortunately died on May 10, 2021, before completing the interview.
Heesob is a patent attorney working in Korea who holds a Ph.D degree in law from Queen Mary, University of London and a master’s degree (LL.M) from Munich Intellectual Property Law Center. He was active in a number of different civil society organizations, such as the Civil Society Coalition, Open Net Korea, IPLeft and the Korea Progressive Network, and an advisor to the National Human Rights Committee on the issue of right to science and culture.
Below is his answer to the first question he was asked.
Question. When did you first become interested in issues relating to patents, copyrights or more generally, ownership of knowledge?
I became interested in IP and knowledge commons when I was working for Samsung Electronics in 1992. At that time, I was a researcher of circuit design of memory chips. One day I was contacted by legal teams asking me to review a warning letter from Texas Instrument. It was very odd for me to see TI’s argument that Samsung infringed TI’s patent and if Samsung continued the infringing activity, Samsung would be punished by civil and/or criminal legal proceedings. TI’s technology mentioned in the letter was not so innovative and such technologies would be better to be shared among researchers. Technology sharing was a kind of culture among researchers at that time. For instance, when researchers of Samsung and Hyundai Hynix (currently SK Hynix) met at the training camp for reserve military forces they shared each other the detail of circuit design of memory cells and how layout designs of input/output circuits were arranged (most of the researchers were exempted from mandatory 3-years military service when they entered researching companies such as Samsung and Hyundai and worked continuously for five years. But I didn’t choose this course). So after the periodic training for reserve military forces, which took for around 10 days, circuits of memory chips of two companies became similar. Both companies knew about the sharing, but they didn’t strictly ban it (they just discourage it). At that time, I thought a thank-you letter would be better than a strict ban on tech sharing under the patent system — I can use others’ developed technologies when I send the others a letter saying thank you and letting them know what I developed.
After leaving Samsung, I was working for patent law firms. My main job was drafting patent applications in the field of semiconductor technologies. What was shocking was that the technologies companies regarded as having the most advanced technologies in semiconductor were seeking patents were not so innovative. Most of the technology was obvious to researchers having one year experience like me. More shocking was that such patent applications were registered. So I realized that the patent system was a legal tool to preoccupy technologies rather than to boost innovation.