from the you-did-what-now? dept
Throughout the COVID pandemic, it’s been truly shameful to watch how patent maximalists have tried to insist that we just need more patents to deal with COVID — even though the incredible breakthroughs that brought such quick development of vaccines were not due to patents, but rather the free and open flow of information from a bunch of researchers and scientists who didn’t care about whether or not information was locked up for profit, but did care about saving millions of lives.
And now that we’ve got vaccines, we’re dealing with significant problems in rolling them out around the world — and patents are often in the way, holding that rollout back. And we actually have a way of dealing with that: what’s known as a TRIPS waiver. TRIPS is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which set up a variety of standards among member nations and the WTO regarding intellectual property. I have many problems with TRIPS (and the WTO), but TRIPS does include a process to grant waivers on intellectual property rights. This was in response to (very legitimate!) concerns by less well off nations that rich nations would use the patent system to block access to important life saving medicines.
So, to ease such concerns, the TRIPS agreement includes a process by which the WTO can grant a compulsory licensing regime that will allow others to make patented drugs, and thus increase availability. A key point of this so-called waiver is that it allows for better allocations of certain drugs during medical emergencies. Given that, issuing such a waiver right now seems like a no-brainer. But… it has not been.
India and South Africa put forth a a fairly straightforward waiver request for dealing with COVID-19. The key part of the request is that intellectual property requirements under TRIPS solely in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19” should be waived during the course of the pandemic. It seems pretty straightforward. Even reliable patent maximalist sites like IP Watchdog are now publishing articles saying that the TRIPS waiver “is a necessary first step towards facilitating increased, rapid production of vaccines” and noting that it won’t undermine the value of innovation in any way.
We’ve already noted that Big Pharma is lobbying against it — which is to be expected. However, what is perhaps less expected is the fact that Hollywood is vehemently lobbying against it as well. Why? Well, they claim that because the waiver is not limited to just patents, it will be used to wipe away copyright as well.
This is… misleading at best. It is true that the waiver would cover copyrights, but only in an extremely limited fashion. As the part I quoted above notes, it only applies to intellectual property protections that are blocking the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19. And, that can include a very limited set of copyrights. For example, there still remain shortages of ventilators in many parts of the world, and early on in the pandemic, people were working on 3D printing replacement parts to help deal with this extreme shortage. However, with some companies issuing threats over these 3D printed parts, there are legitimate concerns that copyright could be used to shut down such operations. Another area where a copyright waiver is likely to help is in allowing researchers easier access to important scientific journals and research that may help them develop more and better solutions.
As if to make Hollywood calm down, South Africa and India included an explicit statement in the waiver request to say that the waiver cannot be used for entertainment products: “The waiver in paragraph 1 shall not apply to the protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms (Sound Recordings) and Broadcasting Organizations under Article 14 of the TRIPS Agreement.” That’s literally the 2nd paragraph in a four paragraph waiver request. Already, it’s kind of insulting that officials crafting this waiver request in an attempt to save lives had to waste time making sure that Hollywood wouldn’t get angry at them.
And even then it didn’t work.
The Motion Picture Association, which represents major movie and television studios, deployed five lobbyists to influence Congress and the White House over the waiver. The Association of American Publishers as well as Universal Music have similarly revealed that they are actively lobbying against it.
Neil Turkewitz, a former Recording Industry Association of America official, blasted the proposal on Twitter, claiming it will harm musicians, performers, and other cultural workers who are already struggling.
?As COVID has undermined the livelihoods of creators around the [globe emoji], you want to further expand their precarity?in the name of justice?? Turkewitz wrote.
The Turkewitz quote is particularly disgusting. There is nothing in the waiver that will harm the livelihood of creators. Indeed, getting the world vaccinated is how we bring things back to normal to help open up the world to help those musicians, performers, and other cultural workers survive. For him to even suggest that this waiver somehow harms them is not just disinformation, it’s disinformation that will kill people. It’s disgusting.
And the lobbying by Hollywood goes beyond just what was reported in the above linked Intercept article. ITIF, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which may sound like a think tank that is focused on the tech industry, but which has long had close ties to Hollywood (and, indeed, an ITIF paper was the basis for the terrible SOPA/PIPA laws a decade ago), recently came out with a laughably ridiculous attack on the waiver, claiming that there’s no possible way copyrights should be included in it:
This latest affront to IP rights is, to say the least, ill-placed, if not misinformed. There is simply no compelling reason to focus on the suspension of copyright in this case.
Oh come on. People are fucking dying and this is the fight you want to have? It’s not “suspension of copyright” that people are asking for. They’re asking for a narrowly tailored, specific exemption to excessively restrictive copyright solely in cases where that exception is needed to help fight COVID. The idea that it is “ill-placed” or “misinformed” is pure propaganda.
And then, just as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, Senator Thom Tillis, who has made it clear that his main goal in the Senate is to push for Hollywood’s extremist interests, wrote up one hell of an oped against the waiver. It is chock full of nonsense.
Yet, waiving intellectual property rights abroad would not hasten the end of COVID-19. It would harm our domestic IP industries, hand India and China valuable government-supported research free of charge and weaken the global IP system for decades to come. Just last week, in remarks before the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) Spring Summit Daren Tang, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), stated that a strong intellectual property ecosystem was primarily responsible for allowing COVID-19 vaccines to ?be brought to people in the fastest time in history.? I wholeheartedly agree…
First off, it wouldn’t “harm” any domestic industry. That’s nonsense. And if the research is for saving lives and (as Tillis states) was “government-supported” then it should be freely available to anyone. Government supported research means that the public paid for it and it should be widely available to anyone.
Second, just because a long time advocate of patent and copyright maximalism says something, doesn’t automatically make it true. There is no evidence whatsoever that “strong intellectual property… was primarily responsible for allowing COVID-19 vaccines” to come about. Indeed, the stories about how the vaccines were developed show the opposite. They show how the free flow of information and ideas among researchers and scientists around the globe, and them agreeing to work together, rather than trying to lock up ideas, is what helped make it possible.
I can understand pharma companies fighting against it, even if that alone is disappointing given the situation. That Hollywood and its friends are flat out lying about it and creating a moral panic, claiming this will somehow hurt the creative industries, is dangerous disinformation.
Filed Under: copyright, covid, health, hollywood, intellectual property waiver, patents, vaccines, wto