Poor countries should use intellectual property rights rules to get a better global deal. And the west should helpby Shereen El Feki / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
In Nairobi, AIDS activists are celebrating a rare victory. After months of vacillation, the Kenyan parliament recently approved a law allowing for the importation of generic, or copycat, versions of patented anti-retroviral medicines without their patent-holders’ consent. Many people believe that opening the market to generic copies will bring down prices for millions of HIV-infected Kenyans faster than any discount offered by giant drug companies.
Meanwhile, in the Puna highlands of Peru, poor farmers are furious about patents issued to two US companies giving them exclusive rights to market maca, a potato-like plant and popular aphrodisiac, in America. The Peruvians say their traditional crop is not a novel invention, and that the patent unfairly restricts their ability to sell it in the US.
Evidently patents are a bad thing for poor places-or so many argue. They are largely the preserve of western multinational corporations, giving them a licence to establish monopolies, drive out local competition, divert R&D away from the needs of poor places and drive up the prices of badly-needed goods. Patents prevent poor people from getting life-saving drugs, interfere with traditional farming practices and allow foreign “pirates” to raid local riches without getting permission or paying compensation.
Yet there is another side to this story. In Senegal, as many as 60,000 musicians struggle to make ends meet. Not because their music is unplayed, but because it is unpaid-broadcast by radio stations, used by better-off performers and reproduced on pirated cassettes, without the creators’ consent, largely due to the country’s copyright laws which are poorly composed and enforced. In India, pharmaceutical companies which are shifting from generic manufacturing to original R&D are lobbying hard for a tightening of Indian patent policy. Since national law does not yet fully cover pharmaceuticals, the fruits of their costly research are hard to protect from copycats at home.
By this measure, intellectual property protection is good for poor countries. It encourages domestic industry, boosts foreign investment and improves access to new technologies. To true believers, intellectual property protection is part of the doctrine of modern economic growth, along with free trade and democracy.
These differing views have turned intellectual property rights (IPR) into one of the most controversial topics in international development. Other forces too are pushing IPR out of the backroom of commercial law and into the spotlight. The first is the rise of the “knowledge economy,” in which an industry’s…