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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Patents: a patent abuse and a patent failure

the BBC is echoing the voices that are rising, every day more loudly, against the patent system as we know it.

According to the various scientists pooled by the BBC the current patent system that allows to patent nearly everything, at every stage of developement and even discoveries that are not any invention, is not favoring anymore scientific research, much less the developement of innovative solutions. The case seems clear for genetics (including genomics), where has been created a "fortress" of patentsaround newly discovered genes, closing off avenues of research for their competitors... and for humankind as a whole, specially because it hinders basic research at universities.

European citizens cannot enjoy the benefits of cancer screening for instance because the public health services find its price way too expensive. Genetically modified rice rich in vitamin A that was intended to be freely distributed in countries where this nutrional problem is endemic, find themselves legally unable to do it because of the intricate network of related genetic patents that have to be negotiated. It has taken years just to figure out how many [related] patents there are and who owns them, complains its developer Prof. Gold.

Pat Mooney of ETC Group, protests that the patenting system is not working, it is more a barrier than an incentive. He says that innovation in pharmacology has dropped to nearly null levels, while in nanotechnology the too broad patents have cut off whole areas of research.

But in Spanish too, the voices arising against the current patent system (nearly no one wants to fully scrap off patents, just radically reform the system) are many. There have been several articles recently at Rebelión on this issue.

For example, L.P. Vargas writes an interesting article on the history and modern reform of the patent system. He mentions that, as of late, not just what the human ingenuity has created can be patented but also what someone has merely discovered, for example: the genome. This is not waht the original patent system was created for, it is a most new developement, dated just to 1994: the TRIPS agreement reached at the WTO.

He finds in this treaty two goals: to create informational monopolies (such as could be the one of Microsoft, for instance) to accumulate new wealth, earlier freely available, into private hands and specially those of the multinational corporations.

Still in 1983, for instance, the law of patents of Costa Rica said that medicines would only enjoy exclusive patent for a year. Listening to the corporative speakers, who always complain that they need to make money from research, one wonders how even existed pharmaceutic corporations at all before the agreement of 1994.

Another author, D. Standeford, follows a conference by J. Stiglitz and J. Sulston (founders the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation) , who have strongly criticised the current intellectual property system, because it actually hinders innovation, instead of promoting it. In the words of Stiglitz (nobel laureate of Economics in 2001) : the current mess of patents by which any person who developes a succesful software program is used for alleged breach of patent shows that the current system of does not allow to promote innovation.

Another problem is that there are little social benefits with this system and he also mentions the cancer screening system, sold for so much that most people in the USA cannot afford it, in spite of the system itself being extremely cheap to produce and use.

Sulston (nobel laureate of Medicine in 2002) claims that science can be largely motivated by mere curiosity and need but that this needs of a great level of opennes and trust among the agents. He complains that the increased privatization of science and research, so welcomed by corporations and some governments, is only causing it to exclude those research areas that are not considered profitable (like finding a cure for malaria).

Another byproduct of the current draconian patent laws is that falsification of medicines has become very profitable. If medicines would be sold only reasonably above production costs, then the falsifiers would have no margin where to operate, but at the current absurd prices demanded, medicine falsifiers have found a huge market with high profits to make.

Sulston suggests to return to the old practice of separation of research and developement from production. He finds that the hybridation of both only causes corruption in the system. He concludes that the very success of humankind will depend on who owns sience.

Who and whith what purpose controls production is what some Marxists, like Toni Negri, have suggested to be the real battlefield of class war in this Toyotist new phase of Capitalism.

I said before that nearly no one is asking to totally supress the patent system but there are some voices that certainly have arisen in favor of mere expropiation of intellectual property for the sake of humanity and common sense.

This is the case of F. Pena, who demands the expropiation of all food patents with the clear objective of making a healthier humankind now, following the equally humanitarian path of medicines, where too expensive patents have already been legally breached with the same humanitarian goal.

In Negri-style words: if this intellectual property is nothing but the collective production (often not even production, just deduction) of the workers of the world (Humankind by another name) , how can we tolerate that it falls in the greedy hands of the corporative masters, who will use it only for their profit? It is nothing but knowledge (and nothing less than it) what Capital has targeted as the latest frontier of its accumulation process. But, unlike it happened in earlier accumulations, this one is not working altogether: it doesn't help to produce (research) more but less.

In the beginning of this 21st century, when huge problems like global ecology and loss of demand cramp the Capitalist system, it doesn't appear like this system can afford to destroy research that can save the system itself (at least in theory), yet, quite suicidally, the Capital is cutting the grass of free research under its own feet, hampering further developement and delaying much necesary solutions to its problems.

Would I be Paulson, I would certainly think in saving the economy by allowing more and better resarch, instead of giving prizes to the worst bankers of the planet. But all these people have only one master, and certainly this is not the public. I can just imagine that this serious problem will hang around for a while, until, in the midst of other convulsions, one country after another decide to denounce the TRIPS agreement and allow research to return to some normality.

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