14 September 2002
poor countries can avoid the wrongs of intellectual-property rights
public will learn that patents are artificial stimuli to improvident
exertions; that they cheat people by promising what they cannot perform;
that they rarely give security to really good inventions, and elevate
into importance a number of trifles...no possible good can ever come
of a Patent Law, however admirably it may be framed."
an argument you might expect The Economist to endorse. And yet this
passage appeared in our pages in 1851. In the mid-19th century, The
Economist believed that patents hindered rather than helped growth,
by restricting the free use of one man's ideas by another. By all
means let inventors be rewarded, we argued, but by trying their luck
in the open market. Patents, like protection, were an enemy of free
change. In today's "knowledge economy", patents seem to
be central to western notions of prosperity and international trade.
Signing on to the global agreement on intellectual property, called
TRIPS, is now part and parcel of membership of the World Trade Organisation.
of the world's people live in countries which either do not have,
or do not enforce, intellectual-property rights. Not for much longer,
however: TRIPS requires even the least-developed countries to have
some minimum protection in place by 2006. Whether this is good for
the poor is hotly debated. America, which has the most extensive and
expensive national-patenting system in the world, preaches that patents
help to foster growth in poor places, since they stimulate domestic
innovation, boost foreign investment and improve access to new technologies.
retort many poor-country governments. Western-style intellectual-property
protection brings many costs and few benefits. Patent systems are
expensive to implement, draining scarce money and trained manpower
from other more pressing concerns. Patents hurt, rather than help,
domestic industries, which are often based more on copying than on
innovating. And in the process, western patent rules prevent poor
people from getting life-saving drugs, interfere with age-old farming
practices and allow foreign "pirates" to raid local biodiversity
or traditional handicrafts, without getting permission or paying compensation.
this fray now steps a study by an international commission set up
by the British government to examine how intellectual-property rights
can help or hinder developing countries (see article). It questions
the doctrine that patents are good for the poor. There is little evidence
to show that truly downtrodden places which introduce robust intellectual-property
protection reap any of the much-touted benefits. Certainly, patents
matter greatly to some industries, such as pharmaceuticals. But putting
in a rigorous patent system will not make Angola a hotspot of biotechnology
innovation any time soon; a licence to drive is little use without
countries should remember this when they seek to impose their intellectual-property
regime on the rest of the world. It is entirely reasonable for the
world's poorest countries to argue that they need until 2016, at least,
to adopt and enforce patents on pharmaceuticals. This stay of execution
should, indeed, be extended to all forms of intellectual property.
Poor countries should also be wary of any provisions in trade deals
that try to impose stronger intellectual-property standards than TRIPS
requires, or of any moves towards universal, one-size-fits-all patents
in such controversial areas as biotechnology. Rich countries should
accept that considerations of how intellectual-property rights affect
poor countries are not just a concern of overseas-aid agencies, but
play a part in broader trade and economic relations too.
is not to reject intellectual-property rights in the poor world altogether.
Applied in the right way and at the right moment in development, they
offer opportunities not threats to poor people. Some developing countries,
such as India and China, whose industrial-scale copying of other people's
products alarms Western businesses, are sufficiently advanced to support
the sort of innovation that would benefit from patents. They should
bring their systems up to scratch, for the sake of their own industry.
Even the poorest countries can profit from well-designed intellectual-property
protection. Senegal, for example, has thousands of musicians who would
benefit from copyright enforcement.
worked-out policies for protecting intellectual property will not
solve developing countries' bigger problems, such as inadequate health
care, lousy schools and sheer poverty. But if they are adapted to
fit individual countries' circumstances, they can play a helpful role
in nurturing the domestic industries that lasting growth requires.
The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, 14 September 2002.
The Economist kindly waived its fee for permission to use this article.