Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Patents Do Not Strangle Innovation, but Their Quality Must Be Improved

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Patents Do Not Strangle Innovation, but Their Quality Must Be Improved

Article excerpt

There is no doubt that the patenting of invention--any inventions, not just medicines--is rising unprecedentedly. As Professor Correa writes, the resulting thicket of patents could "deprive society of the benefits [of] ... widespread use and dissemination of basic scientific ideas".

Possibilities and facts are not the same thing, however, and there is surprisingly little empirical data to show that the patent thicket is subtracting from the rate of innovation or society's benefit from it. Maybe that is happening without anyone noticing, but the available evidence suggests otherwise.

Correa cites extensively from the NIHCM analysis of new medicines, 1989-2000. As he correctly points out, only 15% of the medicines approved in that period contained new active ingredients and were exceptionally medically useful. Fully 65% of medicines contained active ingredients that had been commercialized earlier, and 54% were "incrementally modified drugs" that bear great resemblance to already existing medicines.

But how do these statistics prove that innovation is being strangled to death? In fact they prove just the opposite: that innovation is alive and well. If an inventor's rational expectation is that, more likely than not, the difference between the new medicine and those before it will not constitute a great leap, but only an "incremental" improvement, and the inventor still ploughs money and time into its research and development, then innovation certainly does not seem strangled. Actually, it seems irrepressible.

This is not to say that Correa's hypothesis about patent thickets harming pharmaceutical innovation is necessarily wrong. Obviously, the more patents, the more inventors must spend on patent management, licensing and litigation. At some point, the mounting costs must dissuade inventors with shallow pockets more than those with deep ones, so that research and development accretes in major pharmaceutical companies, ahead of small biotechnology firms. …

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