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5 Things to Know About How Corporations Block Access to Everything from Miracle Drugs to Science Research

Our system of intellectual property rights is patently ridiculous.
 
 
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Should a company be able to patent a breast cancer gene? What about a species of soybean? How about a tool for basic scientific research? Or even a patent for acquiring patents (see: Halliburton)?

Intellectual property rights are supposed to help inventors bring good things to life, but there’s increasing concern that they may be keeping us from getting the things we need.

In this wild and contested jungle of the law, which concerns things like patents and copyrights, questions about the implications of allowing limited monopolies on ideas are making headlines. Do they stifle innovation? Can they cause the public more harm than good? Trillions of dollars are at stake. Companies known as “patent trolls” are gobbling up patents, then going on lawsuit sprees and extracting fees against infringement. Corporations are using intellectual property law to squash competitors and block our access to things as vital as lifesaving drugs, to place restrictions on things as intimate as parts of the human body. Third World countries are kept from accessing essential public goods related to everything from food security to education.

Surely, the producers of new ideas should be able to profit from their creations. But furious debates over what should be protected and who should profit are calling attention to the many things that are going wrong in this area. For example, a recent front-page story in the New York Times detailed how diabetics are being held hostage in America by companies that follow Apple’s playbook to lock patients into buying expensive, patented products that quickly become obsolete. If you don’t buy the product, you don’t miss getting the new iPhone. You may die.

Intellectual property rights have come under intense scrutiny, a trend on display at a recent conference in Toronto on innovation and society, " Human After All", sponsored by the Institute for New Economist Thinking (INET) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), where I moderated a panel on the topic. Let’s take a look at some of the burning questions and issues in play in this debate.

1. Why do we have intellectual property rights?

The notion of giving inventors exclusive rights for a limited time goes back to the medieval era. The first patent in America was granted in 1641 to one Samuel Winslow, who came up with a new way to make salt. Patents could cover both tangible objects and also intangible stuff like methods and ideas. The U.S. Constitution has something to say about patents, namely this:

“The Congress shall have power ... To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries…”

Notice the reasoning: We the People, through our representatives, grant intellectual property rights so that we can move knowledge forward — not enrich a few people at the expense of everyone else.

The question of whether ideas themselves should be protected by patents troubled some of the Founders, who saw the potential for abuse. In an 1813 letter, Thomas Jefferson observed that unlike objects, ideas inherently want to be shared: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Intellectual property rights have expanded quite a bit since Jefferson's day. The Industrial Revolution saw brutal battles over inventions associated with things like the steam engine where the public good was often sacrificed to individual and corporate profits. In the early nineteen twenties, US patent law was revised to favor corporate interests. In 1930, the U.S. began to allow patents for living organisms with the Plant Patent Act. The Motion Picture Association of America, as it emerged, took a hard line on intellectual property and fought for broad protections. As new industries like biotechnology and nanotechnology popped up, companies and individuals sought additional protections for technology. The growth of the Internet set off a yet another wave of intellectual property rights related to patents and copyrights.