India Moving Forward With Dangerous Approach On Expanding Patents

from the get-past-the-myths dept

As India has been revamping its patent policy, there had been some serious concerns about broadening patent subject matter eligibility to include software and business methods. Earlier this year, however, the Indian Patent Office clarified that it would not allow patenting of just straight software patents. And that's good.

But, it appears that that overall push to expand patents in India is still on a dangerous path, based mainly on some longstanding, but flat out incorrect, myths about patents and their impact on innovation. That link is to a story by Anubha Sinha, noting that it's clear that the new plans are designed to benefit giant corporations at the expense of the public, in part by sticking to the myth that if patents are good for innovation, stronger patents must be better -- ignoring that restricting the rights of the public has a real cost.
Delving briefly into the subject of IPRs, it is a matter of principle that a balanced intellectual property (IP) regime, i.e. a model that balances rights with adequate limitations/exceptions, contributes optimally to the holistic development and growth of the nation. Limitations or exceptions are flexibilities in the law, which cut down absolute monopoly conferred by IPRs, and ensure that use and sharing of knowledge for purposes such as research, education and access to medicines are not overridden by IP rightholders’ claims. The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS), which is the largest international agreement governing countries’ IPR regimes also promotes the use of these flexibilities to build balanced regimes. The policy does occasionally state its commitment to the TRIPS agreement and the Doha Declaration, but does not commit or spell out any new concrete steps. Thus, it fails to show any seriousness about upholding and promoting a ‘balanced’ regime – in stark comparison to the detailed and surgical manner in which it aims to raise awareness about IPRs and commercialise them.
This is unfortunate -- and it's also a reason why I've argued we need to move away from calling them "limitations and exceptions" and towards what they actually are: the public's rights. The intellectual property laws, themselves, are "limitations and exceptions" on the public's right to use these things.

Unfortunately, when you don't have much experience with these issues, and you just think that all patents are good and spur innovation, you miss out on how much damage to innovation and the public can be done with a patent regime that goes too far in restricting the public's rights.

The other big myth is that "patents = innovation." As we've noted for years, a rather unfortunate fact is that politicians (and, too often, academics) without a way to accurately "measure innovation" fall back on the easiest thing they can do: count patents. But the number of patents is not a proxy for innovation and in fact is quite misleading. But, because patents are countable, it becomes a metric that everyone keys off of. And we've covered how China, for one, has recently embraced a massive increase in patenting, proclaiming to the US that it's no longer a "pirate nation." But, of course, in the process, it's turned into a giant patent troll, using those patents to punish foreign competitors. But the actual patents that China has been getting, even as the numbers go way up, have been mostly junk.

But, as Sinha notes, it appears that India got the exact wrong message from China:
It is likely that the idea to use the IPR policy as a tool for ‘IPR indoctrination’ to result in staggering IPR generation came to the Indian government from their Chinese counterparts. In 1995, China started conducting elaborate training of its officers, researchers and students to popularise a generation of IPRs and last year the country received 10 lakh patent filings – an international record. At the conference, the officials were in awe of the Chinese statistics, and they were confident of catching up in the next few years. This despite the fact that in China, the race to patent innovations has only led to a proliferation of low value innovations in high numbers. Less than 1% of China’s patents are of intermediate or high value. Thus, China despite its high patent filings shows only a weak innovative performance. Globally, there is enough evidence to show that there is no positive correlation between patent filings and cumulative innovative performance of a country.
Unfortunately, this kind of blind belief that "patents = innovation" may serve to do severe damage to both the public and actual innovation in India. There are lots of (reasonable) concerns about high prices for medicines, but it could also harm India's pharmaceutical industry, which has actually thrived on being able to produce generic drugs that compete globally. Increasing a patent regime would actually stifle that industry. One hopes that at least someone who actually understands how innovation works can get through to the Indian government before it makes a big, big mistake.

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