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[e-drug] The Economist on intellectual property rights

  • Subject: [e-drug] The Economist on intellectual property rights
  • From: E-drug <[email protected]>
  • Date: Thu, 19 Sep 2002 14:59:21 -0400 (EDT)

E-drug: The Economist on intellectual property rights

[Interesting that it is The Economist who is now exposing the below
point of view on intellectual property rights in its edition of this week.
Read more about it in the full article in the journal. Copied as fair
use. Hilbrand Haak]

Intellectual property - Imitation versus inspiration

How poor countries can avoid the wrongs of intellectual property

The public will learn that patents are artificial stimuli to improvident
exertions; that they cheat people by promising what they cannot
perform; that they rarely give security to really good inventions, and
elevate into importance a number of trifles ... no possible good can
ever come of a Patent Law, however admirably it may be framed."

Hardly an argument you might expect The Economist to endorse. And
yet this passage appeared in our pages in 1851. In the mid-19th
century, The Economist believed that patents hindered rather than
helped growth, by restricting the free use of one man's ideas by
another. By all means let inventors be rewarded, we argued, but by
trying their luck in the open market. Patents, like protection, were an
enemy of free trade.

How times change. In today's "knowledge economy", patents seem to
be central to western notions of prosperity and international trade.
Signing on to the global agreement on intellectual property, called
TRIPS, is now part and parcel of membership of the World Trade

Most of the world's people live in countries which either do not have,
or do not enforce, intellectual-property rights. Not for much longer,
however: TRIPS requires even the least-developed countries to have
some minimum protection in place by 2006. Whether this is good for
the poor is hotly debated. America, which has the most extensive and
expensive national-patenting system in the world, preaches that
patents help to foster growth in poor places, since they stimulate
domestic innovation, boost foreign investment and improve access to
new technologies.

Nonsense, retort many poor-country governments. Western-style
intellectual-property protection brings many costs and few benefits.
Patent systems are expensive to implement, draining scarce money
and trained manpower from other more pressing concerns. Patents
hurt, rather than help, domestic industries, which are often based more
on copying than on innovating. And in the process, western patent
rules prevent poor people from getting life-saving drugs, interfere with
age-old farming practices and allow foreign "pirates" to raid local
biodiversity or traditional handicrafts, without getting permission or
paying compensation.

Into this fray now steps a study by an international commission set up
by the British government to examine how intellectual-property rights
can help or hinder developing countries (see page 79). It questions the
doctrine that patents are good for the poor. There is little evidence to
show that truly downtrodden places which introduce robust intellectual
property protection reap any of the much-touted benefits. Certainly,
patents matter greatly to some industries, such as pharmaceuticals.
But putting in a rigorous patent system will not make Angola a hotspot
of biotechnology innovation any time soon; a license to drive is little
use without a car.

For richer, for poorer

Rich countries should remember this when they seek to impose their
intellectual-property regime on the rest of the world. It is entirely
reasonable for the world's poorest countries to argue that they need
until 2016, at least, to adopt and enforce patents on pharmaceuticals.
This stay of execution should, indeed, be extended to all forms of
intellectual property. Poor countries should also be wary of any
provisions in trade deals that try to impose stronger
intellectual-property standards than TRIPs requires, or of any moves
towards universal, one-size-fits-all patents in such controversial areas
as biotechnology. Rich countries should accept that considerations of
how intellectual-property rights affect poor countries are not just a
concern of overseas-aid agencies, but play a part in broader trade and
economic relations too.

That is not to reject intellectual-property rights in the poor world
altogether. Applied in the right way and at the right moment in
development, they offer opportunities not threats to poor people.
Some developing countries, such as India and China, whose
industrial-scale copying of other people's products alarms Western
businesses, are sufficiently advanced to

support the sort of innovation that would benefit from patents. They
should bring their systems up to scratch, for the sake of their own
industry. Even the poorest countries can profit from well-designed
intellectual-property protection. Senegal, for example, has thousands
of musicians who would benefit from copyright enforcement.

Carefully worked-out policies for protecting intellectual property will
not solve developing countries' bigger problems, such as inadequate
health care, lousy schools and sheer poverty. But if they are adapted
to fit individual countries' circumstances, they can play a helpful role
in nurturing the domestic industries that lasting growth requires.

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