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Botanical Espionage, The Western History of IP Violations

About 400 years ago, tea was first introduced to the British, but China was the ONLY nation with monopoly on tea production and methods.


The British did 2 things to end China’s monopoly, (1) sold Opium to offset China’s tea profits, and (2) stole China’s IP on tea via “botanical espionage.”

That history of botanical espionage, continued later in America, where tobacco plants, oranges, cotton, were stolen from the Europeans to end British monopoly.

But now, modern day corporations are similarly scouring through Africa and Latin America, stealing secrets of local people, and leveling forests to find new plants for medicines.

The story of how British stole China’s tea technology was one of earliest stories of IP protection (trade secrets) and industrial espionage.

The British hired Robert Fortune to sneak himself into the Chinese tea growing countryside, to steal the tea plant and the tea processing method.  All along, Chinese laws prohibited foreigners from venturing in-land, precises to protect the Tea knowledge.

China had one advantage, the tea plants all came from the “mother trees” in China.  It made it very difficult for the British to outright steal the plant and grow their own.

The British managed to, however, find another specie of tea used by the people in Assam, and promptly decided to steal some of that secret, and piece together with what they had already learned from their samples from China.  They then were able to establish their own tea plantations in India.

*Some have said China didn’t have a history of IP.

Tea’s history proved otherwise.  China jealously guarded its tea IP.  The British promptly ignored it and violated it.

Today, modern corporations are still doing it, with total disregard for native rights in Africa and Latin America, in pursuit of profits.

The only difference now is, the modern corporations, while slashing through Rain Forest, are stamping their IP rights on discoveries that they stole from the natives, and then preventing even the locals from using it.

*The point is:  IP really is in the eye of the beholder.  It only matters to those who want to protect their own rights.

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  1. April 14th, 2013 at 18:27 | #1

    You forget to add that the British also stole rubber tree seeds from Brazil:


    The fact of the matter is the British only respect and enforce IP only when it suits them.

  2. William
    April 14th, 2013 at 21:52 | #2

    The best-known example of what you’re talking about is silk – silkworms smuggled to Byzantium to start the silk trade there. This happened in 553-4 AD: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_silk

    You can differ in your definition of IP – nature itself cannot be patented, obviously, but when does it count as an “invention” – breeding particular strains of tea?

  3. April 15th, 2013 at 01:55 | #3

    The moralising of IP makes it more hypocritical. If I know how to make something you need, and would pay to get it, it’s only natural that I keep it a secret, while you try to learn, research, copy, the knowhow. The inventor would get pissed off, naturally, and deserves a bit of sympathy if he depends on it to make a living. But nowadays, most so-called IP violations involve vanity products that are totally useless, and sold at an outrageous margin. And they are so simple-minded as to make copying (and improving) easy. The only thing that stands in between are patent laws that verge on being petty and ludicrous. The outcome is expected, but slapping a moral label on top of this commercial competition is ridiculous, especially when given all the historical examples.

  4. qfrealist
    April 15th, 2013 at 01:56 | #4

    Its a pity that the Qing dynasty didnt upgrade its armory to include some rifles from the West (by trade in tea in the 18th cent) so it could have had a better chance in fighting the imperialists at there own game. I think the Manzu dynasty was to insular and ignored western development at its peril.

  5. April 15th, 2013 at 04:41 | #5

    Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

    That is a Chinese proverb that resonates even today.

    Therefore, I find it crazy that people would use it to deny sharing of knowledge amongst peoples and societies in the international stage when it’s so clear from the history of the last few hundred years that the uneven sharing of technological knowhow is the basis of so much of the world’s misery and injustice.

    Article 27 of the “universal declaration of human rights” actually states

    “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

    Yet – all we hear is the importance of profits … and the international agreements that those in power for profits have extracted and memorialized in “international trade agreements.”

    I do hope we break out of this mind-trap soon. IP is a policy lever individual societies may impose to accomplish certain effects. It’s a kind of tax, but if agreed to, it’s a justified tax. As a tax per se, it is neither justified or not – just another government tool. There is nothing inherently moral about it. If applied in the wrong way, a tax can definitely become immoral…

    But as a tax, it makes sense only for each sovereign society – not in the international stage…

    In fact, if there is any morality across the international level, it is this: ideas should generally be free. People with good ideas don’t just have a right to it. They have a responsibility to make something good of it … else others who can make good of it have all the “right” to that idea.

    People should have the right to know how to fish. Let’s compete on other levels – but not at the level of keeping others from knowledge to science and technology and other basic knowledge deemed important to human welfare / modern society.

  6. Black Pheonix
    April 15th, 2013 at 06:53 | #6

    To add to Allen’s impeccable logic, another proverb:

    “Use it or Lose it.”

    IP’s are universally understood as policy tools to “incentivize” new knowledge and use of them for the benefit of society.

    Protection is not solely for the profits of individuals. “Profits” is merely the payment.

  7. Black Pheonix
    April 15th, 2013 at 10:41 | #7

    Further to my comment:

    IP is a natural and ancient concept, dating back to the days when knowledge and skills were ONLY passed down from Master to Disciples.

    The very concept of Education is one of PAYING for Knowledge, paying for IP possessed by others.

    Effectively, most trade skills in ancient time were treated as Trade Secrets (which is where the phrase came from).

    Best skilled craftsmen gained reputation for their work, and expected to receive higher payment for receiving disciples. This was their value of knowledge and skills.

    In ancient China, stealing IP (trade secrets) was forbidden, punishable by law. Similarly, in Medieval Europe.

    Trademarks also came into being, as marks or indications of the skilled craftsmen became important to protect the reputation of the knowledge passed down.

    “Non-compete” contracts were basically assumed. Disciples cannot practice on their own unless their masters permitted so, and even then, only in designated regions.

    * But all of these natural tendencies to protect knowledge and keep them secret for monopoly profits, are inevitably futile, because eventually knowledge leaks out, even as they are practiced.

    The more they are demanded, more they will spread easily.

    The rule of nature of knowledge is, he who best exploit it, profit from it. That’s how society rewards EXPLOITATION, not possession.

    Ownership of IP is just irrational.

    Mere “possession” of IP (or ideas) does not benefit anyone. It’s ONLY beneficial when used/exploited.

    If 2 men possess similar ideas of an invention, but 1 is industrious, and the other 1 is incompetent/incapable, then should the Industrious man defer to the “ownership” of the Incompetent, on the mere vague claim of “possession”??

    I think not.

    I think Knowledge is by nature, a race.

    If “Inventor” is awarded ONLY to he who claims his invention first (in patent office), then why should society award him economic MONOPOLY, when he is unwilling or unable to exploit it and must profit from “license” of other people’s exploitations??

    It seems to me an odd contradiction in Logic in above, like calling a man a winner of an entire race for passing just the 1/2 way marker 1st, while ignoring all those who continued to race to the finish line.

    * In the ancient times, a man can never be a Master, unless he is skilled enough to actually practiced his skill in real life, and built a reputation in his trade.

    That is a true race of Knowledge. A man’s trade reputation is in real economic exploitation, not merely in abstract.

    What we need to acknowledge in modern life is that the knowledge race should be judged on its WHOLE, especially in the exploitation stage (which has been largely ignored lately).

  8. April 18th, 2013 at 10:30 | #8

    @Black Pheonix

    What we need to acknowledge in modern life is that the knowledge race should be judged on its WHOLE, especially in the exploitation stage (which has been largely ignored lately).

    This is very true. Another way of viewing this is to see why is the justification of IP today so rooted in “incentives.”

    Surely incentive is part of the equation. But so too are the costs.

    IP is a tax that is levied on society through the dead weight cost of a legally enforced monopoly, transferred to the ones awarded possession of IP.

    We focus on the incentive, but not so much on the cost (the tax). The social dead weight is not just the cost associated with higher cost for the consumer charged by the IP holder, but the costs associated with all other producers blocked from the use of the idea to produce other things of value to the consumer (transaction cost alone will block many otherwise economically useful exploitation of the idea).

  9. April 19th, 2013 at 06:03 | #9

    @Black Pheonix

    Ownership of IP is just irrational.

    I think Knowledge is by nature, a race.

    I think we should simplify, but not simplify beyond what is required.

    I think the economics surrounding production of knowledge – call it innovation, whatever – is complicated. It is different under different circumstances … throughout history.

    Sometimes unfettered competition is the way to go; sometimes it is with monopolistic protection (modern IP system started in England, when the monarchs granted patents as a monopoly to lure those with special skills from continental Europe to England); sometimes, a tort-like protection for knowledge is enough (trade secret, no illicit activity to obtain’s others’ knowledge); sometimes, government incentivize knowledge for the common good with public awards, etc. (universities, etc.).

    So I don’t think IP ownership is per se a non-starter. It has a role…

    Today we discuss patents against the concept of knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. We presume they are different – that it is the knowledge producers that are the engine of economic growth.

    Rarely is it that clean. The truth is that both are engines of growth, and it is often knowledge consumers who spur knowledge production and knowledge producers who spur knowledge application. Creation of knowledge can be a race – but so can application knowledge. And truth be told, the distinction between these 2 are not always so clear. Necessity is the mother of invention after all…

    Problem with today’s expansion of IP throughout the world is that it is really a tool at levying a tax at the poor for the benefit of the rich. There are no real solid policy reasons for applying strong IP throughout the world. In fact, if you care only about human welfare, you would advocate for weak IP. Would knowledge production suffer in such a world? My bet is not. As human welfare increases, more of humanity will achieve a higher quality of life, will have time and resources to participate in knowledge advancement.

    Today’s system exist because the West has the majority of the labs and free time and resources in the world. Ip exists to allow them to exert a monopoly of knowledge at the expense of the poor – levying a tax of the poor for the benefit of the rich.

    I’m not against IP per se in general. I am however against injust advancement of IP – which is what today’s International system of IP is about…

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