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

“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

“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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