Developing countries, the report adds, would be wise to institute explicit rules that exclude diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical methods from patentability. Many developed nations have already done so, allowing for less expensive and wider dissemination of new and potentially life-saving techniques. The same strategies should be applied to agriculture: according to the report, the patenting of seeds, plants, or animals hurts developing countries more than it helps them.
What works for patents can work also for copyright rules. The commission recommends that rather than embracing or ignoring piracy, developing countries ought to accept rich nations’ copyright systems. Furthermore, they should adopt the broadest possible fair-use rules and explicitly allow copying documents for educational, research, and library uses. As the report notes, many countries-including South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s and the United States in the 18th and early 19th centuries-used such flexible copyright and intellectual-property protection rules to aid their industrialization.
It’s important to note that the commission, chaired by John Barton, a patent law professor at Stanford Law School, was not content to show only developing nations how to navigate the icy waters of international intellectual-property policy. The report offers developed nations a strategy for asserting intellectual-property rights in a way that can earn international respect. Developed nations should adopt a nuanced strategy for intellectual-property protection that does not ignore the pressing public-health and development needs of the Third World. In doing so, they will lessen the risk that developing nations will ignore the emerging international intellectual-property system.
What is most refreshing about this report is its implicit view that intellectual-property rights must serve the greater public good. The paramount goals, the commission argues, should be to reduce poverty and help poor nations gain access to needed technologies. Both sides of the intellectual-property debate should heed the report’s recommendations. That’s a lot to ask: representatives from the U.S. pharmaceutical industry have already bristled at its suggestion of compulsory licensing. But in addition to the stature of the commission members, what gives this U.K. effort traction is the growing recognition that compromise might be the only viable game in town.