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Intellectual Property in Developing Countries: Rights or Wrongs?

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Julian Morris, Director, International Policy Network
Dr Sandy Thomas, Director, Council on Bio-Ethics, Nuffield Foundation

Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

1. Dr Sandy Thomas introduced the report of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights. She argued that intellectual property protection was desirable for developing countries. However, it was important to note that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regimes had costs as well as benefits, and that these fell differentially across countries and groups within countries. In particular, developing countries, as 'second-comers' in the world economy, might bear a disproportionate share of costs with respect to benefits received. IPR tended to confer privileges to producers rather than consumers, which was to the disadvantage of developing countries when most innovation was in developed countries.

2. Sandy Thomas noted that the pace of patent registration had increased sharply. In recent years, an increasing number of patents had been criticised for being of low quality or unnecessarily broad. She noted that proliferation could increase the costs to users of technology, and also reduce competition.

3. In conclusion, she argued that IPR should not over-ride human rights and that unnecessarily high IPR standards should not be pressed on developing countries when it was not appropriate.

4. Commenting on the presentation, Simon Maxwell emphasised a key point of the report, that IPRs were not 'either-or' propositions but rather a set of options, or a ladder of increasing sophistication: developing countries should position themselves carefully with respect to both costs and benefits. This basic philosophy led to a number of recommendations in the report that might leave developing countries short of the highest level of intellectual property protection. He pointed to specific recommendations, for example totally to exclude from patentability diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical methods, plants and animals, computer programs and business methods, etc.

5. Responding to the report, Julian Morris emphasised that IPRs were a particular case of property rights more generally, and that these had been shown to be important to development and capital accumulation in both rich and poor countries. He was concerned about what he saw as a general antipathy to patenting in the report, for example with respect to diagnostic tools. Intellectual property was important in developing countries as much as in developed countries (examples were cited from the pharmaceutical industry in India) and should be encouraged, rather than restricted.

6. A separate issue was the apparent antipathy of the Commission report to private sector research and development, and its preference for public sector research and development. He acknowledged that the public sector might not always deliver innovations in technologies needed by the poor, where there was no market. However, the general evidence was that public sector investment would crowd out the private sector, and that the flow of innovations would be lower as a result.

7. By the same token, there was concern expressed in the report about the increased concentration of research and development, for example in the biotechnology industry. However, Julian Morris argued that this resulted largely from the high cost associated with regulation. The answer was not to change the intellectual property regime but rather to design an appropriate competition policy.

8. In discussion, a number of speakers welcomed the report, though noted that the issues it raised required further debate. A key issue was whether developing countries needed more intellectual protection or not. A number of speakers with expertise in different sectors (e.g. pharmaceuticals, publishing) argued that intellectual property protection was needed. The case was sometimes made that developing countries needed to be able to access new technology without protection as part of their learning process, but this infant industry argument was dismissed. It was not clear, however, how far this argument challenged the thesis of the Commission report. Sandy Thomas emphasised that, in general, the report did not argue against IPR, but rather in favour of a graduated approach.

9. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that a more detailed discussion was needed of the extent to which the Commission recommendations deviated from TRIPs, and that it would be helpful to have more specific examples to hand. Both of these would be addressed in the next two meetings of the series, dealing respectively with health and agriculture.


This event discussed whether intellectual property rights (IPR) are desirable for developing countries, and what costs/benefits have for development.