Monday, July 4, 2011


Patenting of inventions is intended to reward the inventor with pecuniary benefits and recognition of merit. To day patents have become a tool for building monopoly in almost all areas of human endeavor. World Trade Organization (WTO) recognizes patent as a "system of exclusive rights granted by a state to an inventor for a limited period in exchange for a public disclosure of invention". Patents are taken by individuals and institutions and the duration of patents is generally for 20 years. While a patent is in force, no one can make the same claim or use the invention without the consent of the inventor. This has created a situation where many inventions are locked up for want of a buyer and such a situation cannot be considered healthy for science, technology and the country.

One of the most trenchant criticisms against the patenting system comes from poorer countries who are forced to pay exorbitantly high prices for welfare products like drugs. While generic rugs are made and sold in countries where patents have no legal validity as per international patent law, such practices are nonetheless considered unfair. The ethical question that arises is, why people in poor countries have to pay high prices for vital drugs manufactured by monopolistic patent holders while the real cost of the ingredient is a fraction of the retail price. The industry which buys the patent rights invariably justifies high cost of the products made using the patent as it spends much money in buying the patent and commercializing the findings. Many sociologists deprecate the patenting system, especially in pharmaceutical area because of the monopoly resulting from the exclusivity clause in patent purchasing agreements.

Another aspect of patenting practice is that development of a drug involves heavy investments, considerable efforts, long duration for maturation of the technology and heavy financial risks due to potential marketing failure. If there is no patent protection the incentive and motive for scientific pursuit are extinguished and society will suffer eventually due to stagnation and technological obsolescence. After all industry invests expecting reasonable returns for its endeavor though it is also conscious of its social responsibility. In the case of public funded institutions engaged in scientific and industrial research commercial aspects are not supposed to come in the way of innovation and technologies developed here need not be put through the patenting route, though some of them do file patents for offering to the industry for a price. This may not be a proper thing to do as research activities are funded by the public and benefits must flow to all those interested in using the technologies with no exclusivity to any one.

If patenting practice is allowed in public financed research organizations, there is the a larger question regarding the ownership of such patents. In India where ever such rights are conferred on individual scientists, any revenue generated is usually passed on to the inventors on a certain proportion, though the work was carried out with institutional funds. Although this sounds noble on paper, controversies and bickering invariably mar the working environment in the organization. Usually inventions are made by a team of scientists with a leader under an approved research project and determining the share of sale proceeds of patents sold to the user amongst the team members becomes highly subjective and controversial. Whether user industry will have faith and confidence on the ability of the team of scientists to keep the technological features confidential is another issue.

One is reminded of a recent decision in the Supreme Court of the US where the judges were called upon to decide on a fracas between a University and the research group leader who had obtained a patent based on work carried out by a University financed project which was sold to the industry without sharing the amount with the University. It was unfortunate that the Court ruled in favor of the scientist and this ruling may have far reaching implications affecting the relationship between academia and the management of Universities in future. By stressing that rights in an invention belong to the inventor, the court could have unwittingly put a dampener on public funded research in that country. The concept of collaborative research that is the corner stone of university programs is likely to be hit adversely by this convoluted judgment once for all. In India there is a much sounder system of public research and there are well laid down guidelines regarding patenting and sharing of the sale proceeds from technologies developed through group research provided there are takers. Unfortunately the patents taken by many public research organizations in India have very little commercial value and scant interest from the industry.


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