There’s an interesting article on UPI about patent and intellectual property issues related to stem cell research. You may recall that some of the issues with California Prop. 71 have to do with patent sharing, royalty rights, and so on—issues that are not medical or scientific per se but have to do with the capital of ideas. The UPI story is about a proposal by Merrill Goozner, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to place patents in an open source pool similar to that used in software development.
Industry is obviously opposed to this. However, Goozner told UPI, “If what they [industry] bring to the market can't be afforded by the healthcare system, then they're not going to have the blockbusters they want and people won't be able to afford them. That's a stupid business plan, not to mention immoral." A biotech representative responded that the current system would force biotech companies to change direction. (So?????)
The article goes on to give several examples of how patent issues might be delaying medical research and the ideas put forth by several other people regarding a patent pool and the need to consider different methods for dealing with patents in stem cell research. Here’s the idea:
If a company develops a product based on the use of a technology in the pool, they would then have to grant an unrestricted license on that new product or technology for use by other researchers. If the product eventually becomes a medical therapy, then a prize system would go into effect. Those whose technology contributed to the development of the product would be granted financial rewards based on how successful the product is, the significance of their contributions and other factors.
I approach intellectual property issues from a divided perspective. On the one hand, as a writer, I support copyright protection for artists. On the other hand, open source stuff is really cool and important for the advancement of knowledge. I guess—and I’m thinking through this now as I write—that a patent on a technology is somewhat different from a copyright on a book. A copyrighted book, painting, song, etc. is still publicly disseminated. The idea is that it can’t be reproduced or claimed by another, not that no one has access to it. A patent, on the other hand, restricts use.
I am involved in the development of an open-source software program, and one of the things the project leader has emphasized is how the openness of open-source allows other people to contribute and help the project grow. It becomes truly collaborative, in other words. Science needs this. Yes, the companies need to make enough money to keep going, invest in future research, and pay their employees decently, all of which can be hard to do with a start-up. But when a business model is applied to knowledge (or health care—imagine if your HMO weren’t profit-driven!) it can become a zero-sum game. We need collective, community knowledge in order to grow as a people.