U.S. considers suspending intellectual property on Covid vaccines, is I.P. a force for good or evil

  •   4 min reads
U.S. considers suspending intellectual property on Covid vaccines, is I.P. a force for good or evil

The U.S. is reportedly considering temporarily suspending intellectual property on Covid vaccines, but there is a broader question here, is I.P. a force for good or evil?

"I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense." — Henry Ford.

In the debate over whether Intellectual Property is a force for good or evil there is one point that needs considering. Does I.P. support or hinder innovation?

The traditional view of innovation is that it occurs in secret; scientists beavering away behind closed doors, building up to that ah-ha moment. When they make the significant breakthrough, the company that funded the research can announce its wonderful product to an unsuspecting world. If this narrative is true, then patents are essential, or companies don't have an incentive to fund innovation.    

More often, the process that leads to innovation is quite different. As the Henry Ford quote above explains, innovation occurs as a result of mass tinkering, different people working on related concepts, and then others drawing together different ideas. Innovation is the result of hundreds or even thousands of brains, bit by bit enhancements and the wider the net, the more likely innovation will occur. I.P. can have the opposite effect; it can narrow the net.

Take the Covid vaccine. The Covid-19 genome was sequenced on January 10th 2020. Within three days of the Chinese research being made available, Gregory Glenn, who is responsible for R&D at Novavax ordered the gene for the viruses spike protein.  Within two days of receiving the Covid genome sequence, Moderna had designed its mRNA based vaccine.

The great insights that led to the mRNA vaccine for Covid were formed by multiple ideas and innovations that had taken place long before the world had heard of Covid-19.

The real expense applied directly in the hunt for covid vaccines was money spent on trials, and testing. The actual knowhow that led to vaccine discovery was the product of the ingenuity of humanity, not one company.

The U.S. government is considering a temporary lifting of Intellectual Property on the Covid-19 vaccine.

"The move would allow other countries to replicate existing vaccines," commented CNBC. But the former deputy director of the National Economic Council, Clete Willems, said: "The administration needs to steer clear of this trap, which would undermine decades of U.S. policy against forced technology transfer to countries like China and won't directly increase vaccine distribution."

Fair enough, but bear in mind that the U.S. ignored European I.P. during the latter half of the 19th century when it was an emerging market.

You can't have one set of rules which you apply when you are poor, but then change the rules when you are rich in an attempt to stop others from mirroring your rise to fortune.

Take Apple and IP

Steve Jobs once said: "Good artists copy, great artists steal. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."
Yet when Microsoft revealed its first Windows products, back in the 1980s, Steve Jobs reacted in fury. "They just ripped us off completely, because Gates has no shame," he said.

Disruptive technology — from the fall of civilisations to reversing ageing, it has changed the world

But Apple didn't invent 'Windows', or object orientation — that was down to Xerox. Apple's big contribution to the Windows type environment was the double click.
Bill Gates famously replied: "Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it. I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the T.V. set and found out that you had already stolen it."

Perhaps more tellingly, he said: "If (Jobs) believes that, he really has entered into one of his own reality distortion fields."

And yet, when the Android was revealed, Steve Jobs said: "I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

But it is a familiar story to those who study the history of innovation. The Wright Brothers patented their technology up to the hilt and and the development of flight was held back as a result. oddly enough the brothers found their place in history for the first flight, not the 'millions they made' as a result of it.

As for drug discovery, modem advances such as genome sequencing, machine learning and computing muscle power, make new drugs possible.

To incentivise pharmaceutical companies to invest in drug trials and testing; they should be afforded some protection; but the actual discovery process is often more effective when carried out openly and subject to as broad a range of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas as possible.

As Victorian industrialist AJ Mundella said: "Every invention we have made and patented (and some have created almost a revolution in the trade), "has been the invention of onlookers, or ordinary working men or skilled working mechanics" in every case."

For more see, Terence Kealey Sex, Science And Profits

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