Patents stop people doing things. So why are they a good thing?
By Ruth Howells, on 9 March 2012
“So long as men are governed by unexamined prejudices and led away by sounds, it is natural for them to regard Patents as unfavourable to the encrease of wealth. So soon as they obtain clear ideas to annex to these sounds, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than recognize them to be favourable to that encrease: and that in so essential a degree, that the security given to property can not be said to be compleat without it.”
In his Lunch Hour Lecture on 6 March, intellectual property guru The Rt. Hon Professor Sir Robin Jacob (UCL Laws) began his talk about the benefits of patents with the above quote from UCL’s very own ‘spiritual father’, Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham’s younger brother Sam was a naval engineer credited with a number of inventions relating to naval architecture and weapons, so the interest in patents was a family affair.
Robin said that the “public debate about patents is old and never stops”. He’s certainly right about it being old – the earliest known patent dates back to 600 BC in Sicily, where it was used to protect a new-fangled loaf of bread. The first English patent can be traced back to 1449, and was used in relation to some stained glass windows at Eton College.
Robin said that his lecture would put the patent debate in a modern context – and show why Jeremy Bentham was right about them. He then drew on key examples where patents have been helpful, leading to inventions of great benefit to society that wouldn’t have happened without the “patent incentive”.
Robin came to the bar in 1967 and advised on a number of pharmaceutical patents. Many of his examples of patents being an intrinsically good thing were, therefore, from the world of medicine.
The first of these was the story of the chemist Sir James Black, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. His key discoveries were the drugs propranolol, the first successful beta-blocker and cimetidine, used for the treatment of stomach ulcers.
The anti-ulcer drugs invented by Black in the 1970s were the biggest sellers in the world for many years and marked a fundamental change in the treatment approach for peptic ulcers.
The second example Robin discussed was Hepatitis. Despite blood screening tests existing for Hepatitis A and B, something was getting through that could not be detected by classical techniques and was being passed on to people receiving donated blood.
A massive worldwide hunt to find a test was initiated. One small California-based company persisted, finding the “little blighter” (Hepatitis C) in the late 80s. It was then quite straightforward to design a testing kit, which went on to make a huge difference worldwide.
The company sold the kits for £2 per blood donation – or 50p for patients with HIV. Robin asked: “Is this an outrageous level of profit? Or legitimate in terms of the investment that they made?”
Robin felt that it was legitimate, saying we should think of both the life-saving and economic effects. He pointed out that the cost of treating Hepatitis if it was passed on from contaminated blood was much, much more than the price of the testing kit.
Today, Hepatitis is now known to have at least seven variants and is much more widespread than previously thought. Robin said that advances in this field would not have happened without the lure of the patent.
Robin then went on to talk about the EU Court of Justice ruling on stem cells and patents, which makes it impossible to patent research lawfully practised in a substantial number of EU states.
Robin was obviously angry about the ruling, saying that “the directive needs changing – and fast.” He pointed out that it affects the work of UCL researchers such as Pete Coffey, currently working on a stem cell treatment for age-related macular degeneration.
Another current, problematic issue is the patenting of genes – e.g. the patents owned by Myriad for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes. Robin said that this was an example of patents being too powerful, putting off other researchers from working on certain areas.
But despite some issues and areas where patent law needs to be refined, Robin was persuasive in his view that patents have enriched society and mankind and continue to do so.
Robin finished his lecture with a quote from Abraham Lincoln – the only US president ever to hold a patent, for a device to lift boats over shoals. Lincoln praised patent laws for having “secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
After the positive lecture that Robin gave, I was quite surprised to find that the questions from the audience came from a viewpoint that patents were fundamentally a bad thing.
Robin dealt with these well, growing only a touch impatient. He reasoned that if we don’t create massive financial incentives for research and development, it just won’t happen.
But, he did acknowledge that patent law was by no means perfect and much could be done to improve it – particularly around innovations that happen ‘on top’ of an original patent/invention.
Image: Abraham Lincoln’s patent (Source: Wikimedia Commons)