All over the world, fractious fights over ownership rights have raged unabated this past year, especially between rich and poor nations. This fall, we watched a classic face-off when China, finally acknowledging its enormous AIDS problem, broached the idea of making its own generic AIDS drugs. Depending on one’s point of view, China’s announcement was received as either a desperately overdue public-health decision or a frontal assault on the World Trade Organization and the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.
Many debates over intellectual property are driven by empty dogma. For reasons I’ve never quite fathomed, many supporters of intellectual-property rights hold the erroneous belief that more is always better: stronger ownership rights will always foster more innovation and a stronger economy. Conversely, plenty of people hold the equally dubious view that patent and copyright systems will always amass more power for elite companies, squash innovation, and exploit developing countries.
When one looks at catastrophes such as AIDS in China, it seems unquestionably clear that neither of these views make much sense. Strong intellectual-property protection will do nothing to put affordable medications into the hands of AIDS patients in China. Yet it is also undeniably true that we probably wouldn’t have the drugs in the first place if it weren’t for strong patent protection in the developed world.
Neither side seems able to get beyond the heavy rhetoric. But it turns out that there is a broad swath of common ground upon which to build a fruitful compromise. This, in essence, is the finding of a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the U.K. government. Commission members visited developing countries and recruited experts and activists worldwide to prepare 17 working papers addressing and considering a broad range of case studies and viewpoints. The commission’s extraordinary report, issued this fall, is available at www.iprcommission.org.
The commission concluded that a global drive to expand patent protection in the pharmaceutical industry would mean higher-priced medicines for most developing countries and no significant benefit for their local industries. Perhaps even worse, the current system-based as it is on the economic incentives of vast, lucrative markets for patented drugs-would do little to stimulate research on diseases that affect primarily poor people, for example, schistosomiasis, caused by freshwater parasites.
The answer, the report says, is not for developing nations to abandon the nascent international intellectual-property system, as China essentially threatened to do in the case of AIDS drugs. Such a strategy is a prescription for increasing tensions that will likely lead to a spiral of retribution and create punitive trade barriers. Instead, the report argues, countries should individually mold patent and copyright regimes to fit their own needs. For instance, each country could spell out exceptions-such as compulsory licensing for drugs under specific circumstances-that would allow it to make and distribute cheap generic drugs but still uphold the basic patent framework.