It’s a well-known fact that publicly sponsored, even some private or public/private construction projects demand a multi-name specification on equipment: everything from toilets and faucets, carpet and tile, to light fixtures and lamps. As lighting designers, we deal exclusively with the latter but this requirement applies to all products.
On one side of the argument are the multi-name spec supporters. They intend to encourage competition by shopping for the same basic product offered by multiple suppliers, which can then be bought at the best price. Since the public money comes from the taxpayers, these projects have a responsibility to deliver the best quality building for the least amount of money, and the best quality lighting for the least amount of money.
Patent holders or design sympathizers make up the other side of the argument (including patents pending, or even just original ideas). The patent is a universal, government-sponsored method for recognizing and protecting intellectual property, giving credit to groups or individuals whose ideas are new, original, and innovative. Patents are strong reinforcers, although costly, in encouraging development of new products and methods, and they usually allow those new products to enjoy market exclusivity for seven years. Without them, inventors would have little incentive to introduce their brainstorms to the world for fear that the next guy will simply copy it and sell it first – they get rich on your idea. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
To put it into consumer terms, take the iPhone for example. It wouldn’t be here if Apple couldn’t wield its patents. The protection they are ensured by federal law allows them to enjoy exclusivity for their inventions for that seven-year grace period. But, the patent system isn’t perfect and there are lots of loopholes to wiggle out of infringement, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s those very loopholes that keep technology moving. If Apple was able to infinitely sit on their patents, they would have a monopoly, allowing for artificial price inflation of their products (they’re more expensive than PC, aren’t they…). Good for them, bad for consumers, although if we want something badly enough we’ll pay almost any price. Since patents do expire and design tweaks beget new patents, other people are able to build off of what Apple has started, generally making improvements for the good of the industry. Everyone one-ups the previous invention. Since the iPhone’s release there’s been a rush to bring other touch phones to market – now look at your choices. Sometimes, patents are infringed upon to make a quick buck, but the determined defend them fiercely with teams of lawyers – more hassle than it’s worth.
So what are these two camps fighting over? They’re in conflict with each other because you can’t employ certain methods, use certain products, or basically use anything patented on multi-name specification projects because there are no equals. In the past this was not as big an issue as it is now, at least for the lighting world. Light bulbs were light bulbs and sockets were sockets. But now, the sustainability movement and the widespread adoption of the LEED programs, sometimes effectively required by law, have pushed building designs to perform better, use less energy, and otherwise be more ‘sustainable’, so that within the past decade or so, there have been technological advances and refinements in the lighting industry to address the new requirements. Those manufacturers that have done so, who have gone the extra step, have patented their products – making them inaccessible for those public projects.
Now, to close the loop, those same public projects that want the biggest bang for the buck also require sustainability measures. How can you have a multi-name specification and employ patented sustainability measures at the same time? Here the conundrum exists! The industry has been muddling its way through, making exceptions and allowances, but the same problem is raised time and time again with each new project – cost and accountability versus sustainability.
Is there an answer? I’m not sure. For now, we’ll have to keep making those arguments for the greater good – but which greater good is it: the planet or money?