Co-operation on intellectual property needed to get food and drugs to those who need it most
By Pascal Zamprelli
Some seven years ago, law professor Richard Gold, Director of McGill’s Centre for Intellectual Property Policy, and some colleagues set out on a mission. They had observed that the existing understanding of intellectual property’s (IP) role in biotechnology was actually limiting innovation, due in part to inflexible patent systems that hindered both the ability of developing countries to engage in research and development, and their access to discoveries such as life-saving technologies. “We knew a different approach was needed,” said Gold.
The result, after a comprehensive study involving years of research, is a groundbreaking report, Entering a New Era for Managed Intellectual Property: From Confrontation to Negotiation, which calls on policy-makers, business leaders, and civil society to rethink IP’s place in biotechnology innovation, and to ultimately allow greater access to new medicines, foods and bio-energy by loosening the grip patent holders have on innovative discoveries. Gold and his team propose a “New IP” model founded on “better using and licensing innovation rather than holding on to it.”
While it deals with everything from pharmaceuticals to alternative sources of energy, the report offers important insights into how a new approach to IP can provide solutions to the global food crisis. Any change made to a seed, for example, builds on previous, likely patented, alterations. “As those previous changes are patented and increase in number,” Gold explained, “it becomes more and more expensive and time consuming to obtain licenses to use those previous patents. If I am trying to develop a seed adapted to the needs of a developing country, say to make the seed drought resistant, then I face the prospect of spending a lot of time figuring out who owns what and of convincing them to allow me to develop my new seed.”
The result is that developing countries, lacking the resources to dedicate time and money to wading through patent regimes, cannot access innovation and thus cannot innovate themselves. To solve this problem, Gold believes governments and businesses need to develop mechanisms to clear patent rights. He also sees an important role for universities. “We need to develop partnerships between developed and developing country universities and industry to promote research and development into developing country food needs. Universities need to put resources into supporting these collaborations and mechanisms need to be found to encourage the training of grad students and post-docs in developing countries.”
The report provides a multitude of recommendations. Gold plans to ensure it doesn’t sit on a shelf somewhere, but rather influences policies and practices of all stakeholders. To this end, Gold cites the creation of The Innovation Partnership (TIP), an independent non-profit consultancy as one of the study’s most exciting outcomes (See the TIP website for the full report.) “TIP represents the first effort to provide a sustained flow of knowledge from academy to public and private policy-makers. It is a model of how social science research can be translated into real policy.”