Why do we need patents?

There is no em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence that patents serve to in­crease in­no­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity

Down to Earth - - COLUMN - DOWN TO EARTH

Aen­joy great ad­van­tages from the S WE in­ven­tions of oth­ers, we should be glad of an op­por­tu­nity to serve oth­ers by any in­ven­tion of ours; and this we should do freely and gen­er­ously.”So wrote Benjamin Franklin, Amer­ica’s found­ing fa­ther and man of many parts, in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ex­plain­ing why he had re­fused a patent for a more ef­fi­cient open stove he had in­vented in 1742.

It did not mat­ter to Franklin that a Lon­don iron­mon­ger,us­ing his doc­u­ments,tweaked the ma­chine,got a patent and made a small for­tune out of it. It was not the only time oth­ers had ben­e­fited from this poly­math’s in­ven­tions. Franklin never con­tested th­ese,“hav­ing no de­sire of prof­it­ing by patents,and hat­ing dis­putes”.

This is not the case with most in­ven­tors, spe­cially in the US which has made a fetish of patents. Thomas Edi­son, for in­stance, had over 1,000 US patents. But there have been oth­ers who have given freely of their ideas and in­ven­tions. Like Tim Bern­ers-Lee who in­vented the World Wide Web. Like Jonas Salk, who dis­cov­ered the po­lio vac­cine and is fa­mously re­ported to have said when asked who owned the patent:“Well,the peo­ple,I would say.There is no patent.Could you patent the sun?”

Well, a rather churl­ish biotech in­dus­try claims it’s a patent myth sur­round­ing Salk; the vac­cine sim­ply could not be patented be­cause of the way re­search on it was funded. What­ever the truth, a lit­tle later, Al­bert Sabin came up with an oral vac­cine for po­lio,which some aver is more ef­fec­tive,but he,too,did not seek a patent.

Un­like the US, Europe was not fa­nat­i­cal about patents in the pre­vi­ous cen­turies.In fact,there was a strong cam­paign to abol­ish patents and this was ef­fec­tive in get­ting quite a few Euro­pean states, such as Hol­land, to dis­man­tle their patent sys­tems. Switzer­land’s laws ex­cluded patents for chem­i­cals, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and dyes till the early years of the 20th cen­tury.This is said to be the ge­n­e­sis for Switzer­land’s mod­ern and in­no­va­tive pharma in­dus­try. In­flu­enced by the abo­li­tion­ists, the Congress of Ger­man Econ­o­mists warned that “patents of in­ven­tion are in­ju­ri­ous to com­mon wel­fare”.Patents then tended to be viewed as anti-com­pet­i­tive and a covert form of trade pro­tec­tion­ism.

This de­bate has not been set­tled yet. Ques­tions still re­main on a range is­sues be­gin­ning with very fun­da­men­tal con­cerns about the philo­soph­i­cal and moral un­der­pin­nings of the patent sys­tem.The dom­i­nant voice is that of the pharma lob­bies who in­sist it is vi­tal to pro­vide in­cen­tives for re­search and re­ward those who come up with life-sav­ing or life en­hanc­ing drugs. We all need to hark back to his­tory to un­der­stand there are al­ter­na­tive ways of dis­cov­er­ing and in­vent­ing medicines as the story of peni­cillin and po­lio vac­cine show. Patents and copy­rights are not the op­ti­mum so­lu­tion.

Far from be­ing a so­lu­tion it has turned into a curse for the soft­ware and tele­com in­dus­tries who have been sucked into a morass of costly lit­i­ga­tion and stul­ti­fied re­search on ac­count of patent thick­ets on ba­sic re­search.Th­ese in­dus­tries are scream­ing for a re­form of the global patent sys­tem,par­tic­u­larly in the US. But it’s a sys­tem so bro­ken and messed up that the US Congress has been un­able to set it right de­spite many tries over the past decade.

Econ­o­mists point out there is no em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence that patents serve to in­crease in­no­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity, un­less, of course, pro­duc­tiv­ity is equated with the num­ber of patents awarded. One pa­per ti­tled “The Case against Patents”says the US econ­omy has nei­ther seen “a dra­matic ac­cel­er­a­tion in the rate of tech­no­log­i­cal progress,nor a ma­jor in­crease in R&D ex­pen­di­ture”.

Benjamin Franklin must be none too pleased.


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