It would be fair to say that while this blog is generally in favor of intellectual property rights and the ability of creators to protect and profit from their creations, I’m skeptical of the harm that comes from an overly muscular approach to enforcing those rights. Creation or ownership comes with benefits, but nowhere is it outlined that those rights extend so far as to prevent others from exercising their own, whether it be fair use or any other right protected under the law.
All of those considerations can be difficult to navigate in the normal course of business, without taking moral questions into the equation. It’s a less-than-common concern — most products aren’t actually life-changing, despite whatever hyperbole is involved in marketing efforts — but one that carries great import at this particular moment.
Axios recently published an article entitled “The problem with vaccine patents” which laid out the issues presenting themselves as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out across the world, to varying degrees of itself. The entire piece is worth reading, but the main takeaway is that the overwhelming majority of doses have been administered in first-world nations, and that the overall impact of the collective inability to deliver the vaccine to developing nations is a loss of $9 trillion to the global economy.
One of the culprits for the surfeit of vaccine doses, according to Felix Salmon, the article’s author, is the unwillingness of some nations to circumvent patent protections, as many international trade agreements would permit. The reasoning makes a certain twisted sense if you keep abreast of IP protection and disputes across borders, but it’s not a logic that holds up in the face of a pandemic.
The obvious solution, and the solution presented by Salmon in the article, is to open up the patents for use by pharmaceutical companies and governments around the world. There are questions about capabilities and quality control inherent in allowing anyone to try and manufacture the vaccine, but given the unique and mitigating circumstances, it would behoove patent holders to forego some profit for the benefit of global health and the economy that they and every other manufacturer have a vested interest in not collapsing.
Students of history will recall Jonas Salk, who chose not to patent his polio vaccine in the interest of the greater good. It was unquestionably a different era, and perhaps it’s naïve to think that any corporation would put collective welfare above their own bottom line, but at least there is a case study in how eschewing patent protections in the case of a health crisis can ultimately serve to benefit everyone.