Calls for new patent system that encourages innovation

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Patent

The biotech industry has the potential to help feed the world’s poorest people but it is being held back by a breakdown in the patent system, a new study said.

A fixation on patents and privately-controlled research has frequently given rise to controversy and roadblocks to innovation, according to the report called Toward a New Era of Intellectual Property: From Confrontation to Negotiation​, by the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property, Montreal, Canada.

In some cases patents are preventing science from tackling disease and hunger and the authors called for a new era of intellectual property to stimulate innovation and broaden access to discoveries.

Richard Gold, professor of intellectual property at McGill University and chair of the expert group said: “For better or for worse, biotechnology is at the heart of current debates about health care, the environment, food and development.

“It offers the promise of producing plants to resist drought and nourish the world’s poor, and to offer new medicines and energy sources.”

However he added that a lack of trust was playing a “vital role in blocking negotiations that could have benefited both sides, as well as the larger public”.

The report said that the current system rests on the belief that “if some intellectual property (IP) is good, more must be better”​.

But this way of thinking has proved counterproductive to industry and to the world’s poor “who await advances in health and agriculture long available to the global elite”.

The report recommended a new IP system (focusing on granting the right amount of IP and better us of it) that would ensure the appropriate development, production and distribution of medicines, foods and industrial processes, such as the production of clean fuels.

Gold added: “The end of our old way of doing business does not mean we don’t need a system for protecting intellectual knowledge.

“We need an IP system that will support collaborations among researchers and partners in industry and academia worldwide so that knowledge gets to those who need it most.

“This means the laws may have to be changed, but more importantly, it means that we have a lot of work to do to change behaviors and build trust among all the players.”

The study highlighted The University of California, Berkeley, as being progressive in its licensing and patenting practices and in its relationships with the biotechnology industry.

The university has an initiative (called PIPRA) which brings together all public sector-owned patents relating to agricultural biotechnology that may be of use in developing food for low and middle-income countries. It has also developed access and benefit sharing agreements for collaborative research with indigenous peoples.

There are also plans to set up a “patent pool”​ so that companies or organizations can turn to one source rather than approaching each individual license holder.

This could help, for example, if a new seed was introduced as it would be likely to incorporate previous developments that are patented and require license for use.

If a lot of patents involved, a researcher or small company trying to enter into the market could find it difficult to discover who holds each patent and where they are. A “one-stop-shop”​ could facilitate that.

However, Gold said that the food industry tends to rely on trade secrets rather than patents, so the main beneficiaries would be those producing new seeds and those who want to grow the new plants.

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