Imagine you are an inventor and, as such, you have created something great, something magnificent that will change the world and will help lots and lots of people. Let’s imagine your invention is related to the healthcare area, for example, a medicine, a long-awaited medicine (I know, this situation is quite familiar to all of us).
After having spent billions of euros and hours to create that medicine, you expect- apart from helping others- to earn a huge amount of money as a reward for your efforts, so you are ready to protect your invention to obtain the rights provided by patents, but…that means you’ll be the only one able to produce your medicine…and so not everyone will benefit immediately from your discovery since other companies will not be able to mass-produce and distribute it.
What would you do in this situation? Would you give up your patent protection for the common good, or would you make use of your well-deserved rights to exploit the invention by yourself?
If you think this is a difficult question to answer, just think of when the situation turned real and there was a pandemic that only vaccines could stop.
Role of patents in the Covid-19 pandemic
If there are 7,753 billion people in the world, it means that 7,753 billion vaccines need to be produced in the context of a pandemic so as to satisfy a global demand. However, as COVID vaccines have been protected under the patent rights, only the companies that created them can produce and sell them, but can these entities meet the global demand? Of course not, that is why governments around the globe thought about waiving temporarily the patent rights of vaccines, so that other companies could produce them as well. Nevertheless, if patents were waived, pharmaceutical industries would not recover their investment and would be forced to disclose their know-how with third parties against their will, which is what patent rights are for.
This situation created a dilemma that made us reconsider a few things by wondering, should patent rights include an exception for situations like these? Should the patent rights vary depending on the field of invention? Do patents actually spread innovation if only creators can produce their inventions?
This article, however, does not intend to provide an answer to this issue, but just the opposite: it intends to open a debate and inspire readers to boost their critical thinking. After all, there is no use in knowing all the answers if we do not come up with new questions.
Should there be some legal exceptions in the patent rights?
Maybe the first answer that comes to our mind is “of course there should be, public health is a priority”, which is right, but if it was so easy to answer there would be no debate about this matter. Let’s put ourselves in the inventors’ shoes to better understand the situation:
To get a patent, inventors and researchers have to go through a very long, complex and exhausting process which, unfortunately, does not always lead to success. But when it does, it makes all the effort worthwhile since inventors are rewarded with exclusive rights that will make them recover their investments.
A waiver in the patent rights would be similar to letting your classmates copy the answers of the exam you’ve been studying for weeks so that everyone can get a certificate. But the point is, is it worth giving the answers to your classmates when there is an exceptional situation? And which situations can be considered ‘exceptional’ so as to give away patent rights?
Should the patent rights vary depending on the field of invention?
We’ve been focusing on the healthcare area, but this is not the only field where inventors can patent their discoveries. Whatever the field of invention is, patent rights allow inventors to make an exclusive use of their discoveries for 20 years and nobody can reproduce it, otherwise they will be fined and sued.
If we take for example the tech field, which is evolving faster and faster and every now and then there are new discoveries, patents may become obsolete in a matter of a few years. Let’s go back 19 years, when technology was very limited. Inventors who patented something in 2001 still enjoy the patent protection, but what are they protecting if that technology is completely outdated? Should the patent rights be different depending on the field? Or would this be unfair?
Do patents actually spread innovation?
In relation to the previous question, if patent rights assure the exclusive exploitation of an invention for 20 years, how long will it take the whole world to reach that innovation? Take for instance what happened with the vaccines during the pandemic: if only one company can produce the Covid-19 vaccine, how is it supposed to meet a global demand? How long will it take it to produce and distribute 7,753 billion vaccines?
If only one single person or entity can make use of an invention and thus distribute it, it will spread eventually, but it is quite unlikely to reach the whole world, so only some countries will benefit from the discovery. Then, to what extent do patents help spread innovation if only one person or entity can be in charge of its production? In addition, if that innovation is protected for 20 years, that means we will have to wait 20 years until others can research and further develop that innovation. Does this system, then, delay the possible improvements of an invention?
All these questions do not have an easy or closed answer, so opinions might differ depending on the person who is asked about this matter. Patents promote innovation and assure the protection of inventions so as to reward inventors for their efforts, but there is nothing wrong in reconsidering some aspects about the current situation, that is how the world progresses and improves.
After all, if something makes humans special is our ability to doubt, to think, and especially to wonder so as to make new questions. Because great discoveries start with questions, not with answers.
And you? What do you think about this issue?
Are you for patent protection or do you think there should be some changes in the law?
Drop us a line! We are looking forward to knowing your opinion about this ongoing debate.