Posts tagged with: IPR

Last week the Federal Circuit Court handed down what seemed to many a funny decision: that human genes are patentable. Myriad Genetics owns patents for two tumor suppressor genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 (mutations of these genes are correlated with increased incidence of breast cancer, making them of great interest to doctors and scientists). Myriad was sued by doctors and researchers who claim that genes fall into the category of “products of nature,” which makes them unpatentable, but the court disagreed.

Myriad’s patents allow it to charge licensing fees to doctors who wish to screen their patients for BRCA1/2 mutations, and also to researchers developing drugs that would target BRCA1/2 abnormalities in breast cancers. Myriad claims that its patents allow it to recover the costs of identifying the two genes, and so are just like the patents for Velcro, ShamWow, or the Segway. Aside from the legal dispute—i.e., the majority’s facially risible argument that “the molecules as claimed do not exist in nature,” since bits of the BRCA1 gene aren’t floating around in ponds—there are two problems with the patenting of genes: a moral one and a practical one.

In his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property, David H. Carey addresses intellectual property rights vis-à-vis the distribution of medicine. He focuses on the AIDS epidemic and infectious diseases in the Third World, and presents the Vatican’s 2001 argument that the principle of solidarity supersedes patent rights where the lives of the poor are at stake, even though the long-term consequences of a suspension of intellectual property might be severe.

Admittedly, personalized cancer treatment in the United States alters the moral calculation, but the American public has made its consideration, and by the establishment of the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), has decided to fund early stage cancer research publicly. Certainly in order recoup the billions of dollars of testing required to bring a cancer drug to market, companies need the assurance of patent protection, but the sequencing of a gene comes years before any drug begins testing (Myriad filed for its patents in 1994).

As Francis S. Collins, head of the NIH, explained in a recent book,

The information contained in our shared [genome] is so fundamental, and requires so much further research to understand its utility, that patenting it at the earliest stage is like putting up a whole lot of unnecessary toll booths on the road to discovery.

Whether the Supreme Court reverses the Federal Circuit’s decision, or Congress passes a law making clear the proper extent of patent protections, this intellectual property mess must be untangled.

News broke yesterday of an audacious violation of Apple Computer’s intellectual property rights (IPR) in China. This expat blogger posted photos of three sham Apple Stores she discovered in the city of Kunming—the stores have been set up by some entrepreneurial chap hoping to capitalize on the company’s Chinese popularity.

The story was slightly amusing, especially in light of Apple’s recent earnings announcement. (“They totally did it again,” said one analyst. It was also revealed that Apple now sits on enough cash in hand to buy 100% of Goldman Sachs at its current market value.) It seems that the Apple brand is now so valuable that the Chinese are counterfeiting the company’s retail outlets to sell Apple’s own products at full price. As one employee of the fake store said when reached by the Wall Street Journal,

It doesn’t make much of a difference for us whether we’re authorized or not. I just care that what I sell every day are authentic Apple products, and that our customers don’t come back to me to complain about the quality of the products.

But that’s precisely why Apple’s IPR must be protected. The company is one of the most innovative ever—their graphical user interface, popularization of the computer mouse, iPod music player, and touch-screen devices have dragged the technology sector forward, to say nothing of their design contributions—and that innovation would not have been supported without protections for the company’s intellectual property.

The U.S. Constitution justifies the establishment of IPR in giving Congress the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

As David H. Carey explains in his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property,

If allowing some techonology to be patented benefits society in the long run more than it costs society temporarily to forego unrestricted use of that technology, then such patents are morally defensible.

The Apple Store “experience” is tightly bound up with the company’s products (remember how miserably Dell stores failed?), and part of allowing Apple temporary exclusive use of its inventions is allowing it to sell them as it sees fit.

There is also the question of trademark, which exists primarily for the protection of consumers, so that when I buy a tube of Crest toothpaste from a CVS I know that I’m not getting a Chinese imitation accidentally laced with cyanide, stocked by a shyster posing as a reputable franchisee.

Whatever employees of these fake Apple Stores may say—and according to the blogger who broke the story, none of the stores’ sales force realized at the time that they weren’t working for Apple—it’s China! Would you buy an iPhone from one of the fake stores? The Chinese government has a responsibility to its citizens to enforce Apple’s trademarks and protect its citizens from fraud.

By pure coincidence, I can illustrate the importance of protecting IPR in China: Yesterday, about the time this story was hitting the internet, my father went to the Apple Store in Dallas (an authentic one) and purchased an iPad. While he is away for a week on a theology course, Apple’s device will give him access to email and other business tools, so that he can grow in virtue and keep his business running at the same time (and once they debut the iSpankings app, he’ll be able to keep his kids in line, too). He chose an iPad over any number of other devices because his IT guy—who doesn’t like Macs, as IT guys never do—told him it would do the job best.

Except for the U.S.’s protection of IPR, that market solution wouldn’t have been possible.