Is Protecting Copyright More Important Than Saving Lives During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

from the to-hollywood-it-is dept

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked terrible suffering across the world, we are fortunate that we already have several vaccines that have been shown to be highly effective in reducing the number of deaths and hospitalization rates. Discovering vaccines proved easier than expected, but ensuring that everyone – including people in developing countries – has access to them has proved much harder. The main reason for that is an intellectual monopoly: patents. Even though at least two of the main vaccines were developed almost entirely using public funds, which ought by rights to mean that the results are in the public domain, companies have obtained exclusionary patents on them. This has led to calls for a patent waiver of some kind to allow countries to produce their own supplies of medicines, without needing to pay licensing fees.

The proposal from India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO) does not mention patents at all, but lists instead what the waiver seeks to achieve: “the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19”. A paper from Sean Flynn, Erica Nkrumah and Luca Schirru points out that works covered by copyright also need a waiver if we are to combat COVID-19 effectively. For example:

Researchers cannot contribute to COVID-19 responses if they cannot access the scientific literature they need to conduct their work. A global survey recently found that about 20% of researchers globally, and over 30% of researchers in South America (where copyright exceptions are the most limited), report that COVID has “completely” altered or halted their work.

Although some publishers did make publications relevant to COVID-19 freely available initially, the number of articles available is diminishing. Similarly, researchers need free access to material covered by copyright in order to carry out text and data mining, which uses computational analysis of large collections of material in order to reveal new insights. In fact:

The [Covid-19] outbreak was discovered by a Canadian text and datamining company, BlueDot, which tracks emerging health threats by analyzing “a variety of information sources, including chomping through 100,000 news reports in 65 languages a day.”

A less obvious problem caused by copyright concerns the labels and inserts that convey vital information about vaccines and drugs:

Even if a competing vaccine or treatment is lawfully produced with respect to patent law, there are opportunities for companies to use copyrights to halt or delay generic marketing. The issue arises because labels and package inserts – which convey information often required by regulators – may be considered protected by copyright in some countries. There is a history of pharmaceutical companies making such claims (ultimately ineffectively) in the U.S. A recent report by WTO and WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] explained that the practice of using copyrights to block generic production continues in other countries.

In each of these instances copyright is acting as an obstacle to the wider availability and use of vital medical interventions to people around the world. Hindering the ability to offer vaccines and treatments will inevitably lead to avoidable deaths from Covid-19. As well as granting waivers for patents, it’s long overdue for the authorities concerned to grant them for key material covered by copyright too. If they don’t, people in parts of the world without ready access to vaccines and treatments will have to conclude that saving their lives is regarded as less important than protecting intellectual monopolies.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Originally posted to the Walled Culture blog.

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Comments on “Is Protecting Copyright More Important Than Saving Lives During The COVID-19 Pandemic?”

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20 Comments
sumgai (profile) says:

If I were India in particlar, I’d simply tell the patent holders a to go fly kite, then tell my own medical people to get on the stick. Picking up the pieces in a legal battle after the fact, that’s not out of the realm of possibility for a country as large as India.

I don’t know if S.A. is large enough that they could withstand a protracted legal battle after the fact, but since lives are at stake, I’d take the chance anyways, were I them.

Copyright law everywhere needs to be modified such that in the rare case where lives and the public safety are endangered, such laws are automatically suspended until reinstated by a court, with competent reasoning based on scientifically accepted proof. i.e., no emergency injunctions against such suspensions.

Arijirija says:

Tolkien's Dragon sickness

To quote from the estimable Professor’s first book, The Hobbit,

"However you don’t know Thorin Oakenshield as well as I do now. I assure you, he is quite ready to sit on a heap of gold and starve, as long as you sit here.”

and: "The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions."

Substitute "Intellectual Property Rights" for "gold" and you’re describing the current reign of (doofuses?/doofii?) otherwise known as the Intellectual Property Rights legal regime. And for what little it’s worth, ever since the Disney Corp got copyright extended successively, I’ve been all agog waiting for the next cinematic masterpiece (de)composed by Walt Disney’s own hand. Whatever can be holding up its publication? Could it be that the Disney executives are pocketing the money that should provide Walt Disney the incentive to continue (de)composing works of cinematic art?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"Is Protecting Copyright More Important Than Saving Lives During The COVID-19 Pandemic?"

Isn’t having to even ask the question the answer?
Millions of people on the planet are dead, millions more will still die, and we have people who make movies screaming that sharing the sacred IP without getting their chest of gold will kill us all.

The truly sad thing is that they are crying wolf yet again & even with bodies laying on the ground at their feet they care more about if they might lose a nickel.

Oh hey we found the 1 thing copyright can’t do… motivate people to save others even if doing so doesn’t directly cost them anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

it seems that, certainly in the USA, there is absolutely nothing that is more important than copyright, certainly of all the various types of entertainment copyright and the prosecution of anyone/everyone who may havebroken it! the whole aim is for the entertainment industries to take control of the internet and who can do what on it, simply because they want to gain even more profits, want to do less when selling it but charge the same as if a physical disk or book or game was bought, but puts the costs on to customers by forcing downloads. the cost of providing and upkeep of the websites being a pitence compared to paying for disks and artwork butputs the onus on to customers!

Peter (profile) says:

Is Protecting Copyright More Important Than Saving Lives

Never mind C19 and science.

What do you think the $150,000 statutory DMCA damages (per file!) do to the average persons life?

You get caught stealing a DVD in a store and pay 50 Dollars to get off the hook, you get accused of torrenting a single song from said DVD and have to live the rest of your live with an account balance of -150000 Dollars dragging you down.

And that is a not a hypothetical, "that researcher might have found a cure for Corona had he had access to the journalys", the DMCA fines have been intentionally set so high with the idea that "killing" a few people might deter a lot of others.

And if it doesn’t: Congress doesn’t seem to care, and certainly not the Media industry or the justice system that do the "killing". Sorry: that make sure to do what’s necessary to "advance the arts and the sciences."

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is Protecting Copyright More Important Than Saving Lives

the DMCA fines have been intentionally set so high with the idea that "killing" a few people might deter a lot of others

Well, that’s not the only reason. Having the maximum set so high also allows copyright holders to shoot for a smaller fine and present the narrative that they’re doing it out of "magnanimity". They could have run the defendant out of house and home but that’s not what they want, they swear! The fact that going for a huge fine would also be horrible PR for them is a huge coincidence.

Realistically what copyright holders want isn’t a huge judgment. That costs them time and money that’s billed to lawyers. They want a quick and easy judgment that can be used to intimidate other easily scared victims.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is protecting copyright more important than saving lives? Hope it’s a rhetorical question because what kind of a person that would sincerely ask this? The depraved kind. People are such pigs… putting their corporate profits before people’s lives, yeesh! What is this kind of dystopia the copyright maximists are wanting to build? Is corporate welfare so more important than the underclass welfare?

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