Editorial: Do away with Patents, Give back the Freedom

If Prometheus had patented his invention, every single one of us on the surface of the earth would have been paying royalty every single time we light our stove! Our freedom to cook or keep ourselves warm would have been at the mercy of some transnational conglomerate named after ‘Prometheus & Sons’ or ‘Prometheus Inc’ or may be ‘Prometheus Fire International’. Fortunately, our great grandfathers were not as ‘smart’ as we, the ‘civilised’ profit-mongers of the modern world.

Are patents and copyrights the appropriate mechanism to ‘reward’ the inventors? Are these instruments effective in promoting innovation? Several studies have unequivocally answered these questions in complete negative. Patent systems are often justified under the assumption that patent protection promotes innovation, thus offering larger benefits to the society. This line of argument is upheld by many though no empirical evidence supports such a hypothesis. On the contrary, several statistical studies show that whenever and wherever the patent regime has been stringent, innovation has been on the decline. If the patent system has been proved to be an ineffective mechanism to drive innovation, a question that emerges would be then why all over the world the efforts are towards strengthening various IPR systems. Who benefits from creating monopolies through increasingly restrictive IPR hurdles? If the inventors are rarely motivated by patents and the monetary benefits such a system offers, then in whose interest the governments all over the world are trying to legislate newer and more potent IPR laws? The answer to all of these questions put transnational corporate and publishing and entertainment houses in the dock. It is these business houses who amass huge financial fortune from the monopoly the patents system allow establishing. The key question on behalf of the public to the governments world over would be: Should the freedom of the larger society be sacrificed at the behest of monopoly profiteering?

Statistics that establish diminishing innovation with stricter intellectual property protection regimes bring out a key reality about the whole process of innovation. Any research and innovation needs variety of inputs from the past and present, including information, knowledge, data, culture and process. Without access to these vital inputs, termed as ‘on your shoulder’ phenomenon, no new inventions or breakthroughs can occur anywhere. A restrictive patent regime makes the cost of these very inputs required for innovation go up and thus discourage the innovation itself. When the very process of innovation thus remains collaborative in nature, the fruit of the same cannot be given individual exclusivity. All the knowledge and progress the humankind achieved till date in all the realm of life, including science and technology, has been achieved by virtue of collective knowledge, which is owned by the whole society. An exclusive-rights regime is trying to negate this fundamental truth by granting privileges to an individual to make use of the knowledge for his self interest instead of making it work for the good of the entire society.

It may be noted that exclusive rights, as represented by patents and copyrights, have never been considered as one’s right in any society. Neither these rights were time immemorial or universal in nature. The guiding principle all over the world has been that the patents are granted, that too for a limited time, only when public good demand offering such state protected monopolies. However, public good, the most important consideration, has given way to ‘corporate good’ over time to help those who are engaged in the business of wealth accumulation at the cost of the majority around. Copyright, as we know, is a recent phenomenon, originated in the western society in the 18th century to regulate printing industry. Over time, the law has transformed itself in intent to constraint the authors and artists rather than regulating the industry. It is ironic that the printing industry ended up establishing a strong monopoly and reaping huge benefits by virtue of the very laws that were supposed to reward and protect the authors. This is never a case in isolation. One can easily identify common patterns where real inventors have benefited little from their inventions while the business houses that turn these inventions into commercial ventures ended up amassing huge wealth, aided by the IPR laws. The story has been the same, be it the case of the Internet or the Hollywood.

How patent laws can cripple and deny the people their fundamental right to have access to the breakthroughs in science and technology can be understood by studying the patent operation in the pharmaceutical industry. For example, as per the Indian patent act of 1970, only process patents were allowed in the field of medicine. A process patent allows patenting of only the process by which a particular medicine is manufactured, instead of the end product itself. It is very important to remember that the process-patent approach enabled India to manufacture vital medicines and make it available to the people at a very nominal price compared to the original International price. For example, Rifampicin, a key TB medication, was manufactured in India within just 4 years of it being introduced in the international market. This enabled India to very effectively fight the widespread TB disease, making the medicine available to the common man at a very affordable cost. Under a more restrictive product patent regime, the story would have been a completely different one for India. Under the new patent regime, thrust upon by the WTO regime, Indian people are exposed to international pricing and are put at a huge disadvantage being not able to get medicines manufactured in India at a lesser cost. Changing stand of the Indian Government towards the patentability of computer software is another example of wielding under the pressures of international corporate business houses. Computer programs (software) are not patentable as per the Clause 3(k) of the Indian Patent Act. However, the government has been moving in the direction of extending scope of patentability to software as well.

Though we are a free nation and another independence day has passed by, our freedom is under threat from large businesses in their bid towards more profits. The patent system is one tool with which they curb our freedoms. It is time we do away with Patents, devise better instruments to reward and promote innovation while at the same time giving people the freedom to enjoy the fruit of such innovations to better their life.

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