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Foreign Affairs: Who Owns Ideas? The War Over Global Intellectual Property

Oct 24, 2002, 10:00 (32 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by David S. Evans)


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"Intellectual property faces the greatest criticism when it comes to the production and distribution of life-saving medicines. Pharmaceutical companies insist that they need patents to recoup the considerable financial investment they make in discovering drugs, getting them approved by regulators, and bringing them to market. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimates that it costs more than $800 million to develop a new prescription drug. But in recent years public-health advocates, most notably the physicians group Medicins Sans Frontieres, have argued that stringent intellectual property protections make lifesaving medicine expensive or unavailable in the poorest countries. The inability of aids patients in Africa to obtain medications has put the vast international pharmaceutical industry on the defensive.

"Mickey Mouse was funny. This failure is heart wrenching. But it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of those who oppose intellectual property rights, even as they appear to be the more human and compassionate figures in the debate. Preventing the distribution of copycat drugs because of adherence to patent laws invariably means that some desperately ill patients will not have access to medicines they need. Yet the act of ignoring patents in the name of helping sick people curbs the incentive to develop new, lifesaving drugs in the future. The critics of intellectual property protection have forgotten Abraham Lincoln's statement that the patent system 'added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.'

"Unfortunately, the public health field is not the only one in which the argument against the ownership of ideas is gaining ground. Today, governments around the globe are being asked to use only computer software that is available under an open-source license. The General Public License (GPL) is the most common license and is used for the most popular open-source software package, the Linux computer operating system. Although many Linux and open-source software users are content to co-exist with the for-profit world, the GPL can quickly suffocate intellectual property rights. The GPL allows anyone to distribute copies of open-source software for free or use the source code to create a derivative software program. But if anyone uses some of the Linux code in creating a derivative work or complementary program, that software, too, must be distributed for free and its source code made available to all. Adherents of the GPL refer to the system as 'copyleft,' fully understanding that it forces any proprietary software maker who wants to use code licensed under the GPL to surrender its intellectual property to the commons..."

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