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The value of the patent system

Posted by on March 6, 2015

Rob Andrews resizedRobert Andrews is a European patent attorney and has worked for Mewburn Ellis LLP since 2006. Robert is running the patently valuable workshop at the Society of Biology on March 10th 2015.

Innovation in biological science has allowed for unprecedented improvements in public health: all the way from processes we now think of as basic – pasteurisation, anaesthesia, vaccination – through to the technology allowing for ‘3-person IVF‘, modern society has benefited from the insight of researchers in the field of biology.

Given the benefits that flow from innovation, it is in our interest as a society to encourage the development of new technology – but how can we do this?

Fortunately, we don’t have to find an answer to this question or, rather, we have already found an answer – the patent system.

The patent system, particularly as it relates to biological science, features regularly in the news albeit, unfortunately, all too often cast in a negative light. As seen in the recent US court battle involving the company Myriad (who hold patents relating to the BRCA1/2 breast cancer related genes)[1], all too often the scene portrayed is one of a faceless corporate entity using patents to withhold vital technology from sick people in need.

This crude characterisation misses the crucial point of this innovative process – that the ‘vital technology’ would not even exist if the company in question had not invested the significant time and resources to develop it (not to mention all the other candidate technologies which were partially researched but turned out not to quite make the safety/efficacy grade). Without the offer of the legal right to stop their competitors from copying the new technology as soon as it was put on the market (a right which is, anyway, limited to 20 years), why would the innovating company bother to take the risk of research?

Some parties find the commercial incentivisation of innovation distasteful or immoral, citing the examples of individuals who cannot afford the prices charged by a patent-holder for the latest life-saving drug. This is an issue, and there is a debate to be had about the correct level of ‘incentive’ an innovator should receive; indeed, many patent-holders are beginning to recognise this issue and, for example, offer patented medicines at reduced rates in poorer nations (so-called ‘tiered-pricing’)[2]. However, the observation that the system is not perfect is not a reason to pull it down.

History shows that the patent system works: it is no co-incidence that the richest and most-developed nations are also those with well-established and long-standing patent systems. As scientifically-literate citizens, we should recognise and value the importance of a strong patent system in the innovative process.



Places are still available on the patently valuable workshop at the Society of Biology on March 10th 2015.

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