Intellectual property: striking the right balance

In an effort to remain joined up across the programme, Christos has suggested this week’s blog topic:

“Intellectual property represents a compromise between encouraging new ideas and allowing the full use of existing ideas”

Kenneth Arrow (1962)

The subject of intellectual property (IP) is arguably the longest-standing topic that can be described as ‘technology policy’. In the UK, the first patent was issued in 1449 not long after the first-ever patent was issued in Florence in 1421. Broader policy governing IP dates back to the early 18th century and the UK patent office was created in 1852. Similarly, IP was a live issue during discussions over the US Constitution. In other countries embracing IP regulation has been much slower, for example, it was not until the accession of China to the WTO that intellectual property rights were widely enforced.

Obviously, the question of IP rights has evolved and is at the very heart of many sectors such as pharma and biotechnology. There are also debates over what can (or rather should) be patented. For example, there were extended debates over whether software could or should be patented, and over patenting of genetically modified organisms. Just this past week, the South Korean patent office declared that VR and AR videos as well as ‘images expressed on websites, street walls and human bodies’ will be eligible to be registered as intellectual property.

More urgently, both crises (such as the current moment!) and the needs of developing countries (also the current moment!) provoke many calls to remove or suspend IP protections. The history of how to deal with patent protection of antiretrovirals at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis offers an interesting historical case study in this regard.

There are, of course, many aspects that you might address, but here are a few questions to start:

  1. How to strike the balance between ‘encouraging new ideas and allowing the full use of existing ideas’?
  2. Where are you comfortable drawing the line on what we should be able to patent? What is the rationale for
  3. What role does IP have in developing countries?
  4. At a time of crisis should we dispense with IP either by removing or forcibly licensing the IP?