Continuing last week's discussion about why patents may be bad for the pharmaceutical industry
(the one industry that even those who hate other types of patents often agree patents are needed), Slashdot
points us to an editorial by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz where he writes eloquently on the problems associated with pharmaceutical patents
. It covers much of the same ground that we've discussed here in the past, but is absolutely worth reading. He covers Thomas Jefferson's view of intellectual monopolies, and how they only make things inefficient. He discusses the tradeoffs associated with stimulating new drugs, but then notes that the costs appear to greatly outweigh the benefits:
"Research needs money, but the current system results in limited funds being spent in the wrong way. For instance, the human genome project decoded the human genome within the target timeframe, but a few scientists managed to beat the project so they could patent genes related to breast cancer. The social value of gaining this knowledge slightly earlier was small, but the cost was enormous. Consequently the cost of testing for breast cancer vulnerability genes is high. In countries with no national health service many women with these genes will fail to be tested. In counties where governments will pay for these tests less money will be available for other public health needs.
Stiglitz alternative is to use a bounty system that would set up prize money for important pharmaceutical cures and breakthroughs, on the condition that the details of the drugs would then be available to other drugmakers to create generic versions and let the market set the price. It's an idea that has certainly been suggested before, and does present some additional problems (what gets a prize, how big are the prizes, where is the money coming from?), but given how screwed up the existing system is, it's an idea that's at least worth discussing.