Patents and intellectual property rights

Much like communism, the ownership of ideas is a short term strategy that may be profitable in the early stages but that ultimately earns a negative return.

Drug producers reap billions from patent protection.
Drug producers reap billions from patent protection.

As one of its conditions to a future free trade agreement, the European Union wants additional concessions to our pharmaceutical patent legislation; they would like to extend patent protection an average of 2.66 years, a move that is said will cost Canadian consumers a couple of billion dollars a year. The EU justifies this demand by saying the research-based pharmaceuticals (most with headquarters in Europe) need to make up for the time it takes new drugs to pass through our regulatory system. It goes without repeating that all of this is justified by the argument that drug manufacturers spend billions on developing these drugs and that they need and deserve to recoup their investment. (In fact, most of the billions are spent elsewhere: Canadian researchers get less than one per cent of that amount for research.)

Money not so well spent

However, I would question the truism that research-based pharmaceutical companies spend all these billions on finding new cures. It might be more accurate to say that many of the research dollars are spent on making subtle changes to existing pharmaceutical patents so that, in effect, the company will qualify for another 20 years of monopoly.

When was the last time the industry actually came up with a real breakthrough? It is true that more people live through cancer longer now than in the past, but are we closer to a cure? Can we cure diabetes? Heart disease? Mental illness? Every year, in addition to the exorbitant sums spent on drugs in this country, billions more are raised through donations to be spent on medical causes such as these, but there is little real progress to show for all this money.

Indeed, if you listen to the ads on American television, it seems that many of these “new” drugs are better at causing side-effect distress than curing disease and many have caused real harm as witnessed by class action suits coming out of the United States.

All this merely underlines the wider issue related to protectionist practices, which include copyright and marketing boards. It is ironic, that even while the EU demands stronger patent legislation for research-based pharmaceuticals, it inconsistently demands a dismantling of Canadian marketing boards. (I heartily support this, but I have to note that Europe wrote the book on agricultural subsidies and protectionism).

Last summer, I was at a meeting of former U.S. Congressmen and Senators where the question of protecting intellectual property was on the table. The proponent for preserving the status quo was a representative of the Intellectual Property Association of America and he was defending intellectual property rights in America as a right and just thing to serve America’s interests. I believe he was dead wrong and I told him so. His message was strongly focussed on closing the borders, keeping out foreign ideas and protecting the brain children of Americans. This is a shockingly shortsighted approach. Closed societies view new ideas and progress as evil. Such societies cause the dumbing down of ideas and the shrinkage of knowledge and initiative.

Much like communism, the ownership of ideas is a short term strategy that may be profitable in the early stages but soon reaches a point of negative return in a world governed by the laws of forward momentum.

A Wikipedia contributor put it this way: “A patent is not a right to practice or use the invention. Rather, a patent provides the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing the patented invention for the term of the patent, which is usually 20 years from the filing date subject to the payment of maintenance fees.”

This negative approach to dealing with ideas is intrinsically harmful to progress.
Back in the early nineties, I spent many long hours as the parliamentary secretary for Consumer and Corporate Affairs, thinking about intellectual property rights and the harmful fallout it can cause. I resisted bureaucratic attempts to foist backward legislation on the rights of radio stations to play music without paying royalties to the “starving artists” who mostly lived south of the border and who had just recently been begging those same stations to play their music. I fought against the move to assess a levy on recording disks (now a moot point, anyway) for much the same reason.

But what about the starving artists? Shouldn’t there be protection for ideas and original work?

Little payoff for creators

Lovely thought but it just doesn’t work. Even though I am a member of the creative class myself, I have to reject this notion. Aside from the arguments made above, it is seldom that the creator benefits anyway. We are often too busy creating to make money from our ideas and we are often simply the resource for some enterprising person to build his fortune on. Patents and copyright usually benefit the publisher, the promoter, the manufacturer, with the creator at the bottom of the totem pole.

What about the idea of marketing boards, setting limits on production by the many to protect the interests of the few? I reject this idea completely. I applaud co-operative efforts – they make sense as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. But marketing boards? Really!

It is time to rethink our whole approach to intellectual property and to protectionism in general. Asia is already setting the standard for the future. It’s time we got on the bandwagon with them and with the new opportunities inherent in the world of free exchange on the Internet.

By Dorothy Dobbie

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