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The subject of this lecture was the issues of patents and what do they mean for social entrepreneurship. We were shown multiple cases, some of which were cut-and-dry, while others were not. As I reviewed the cases of Colgate, Jane Care, CIPLA, and others presented in these courses, the question that kept bothering me was not about how to walk the fine line between championing cheap and affordable healthcare while practicing a responsible copyright strategy. Instead, I started wondering about why patents and copyright claims are even needed, and if they do more harm than good.
The current economic system, in which most if not all enterprises reside, prides itself on being guided by enlightened self-interest rather than some of the nobler but unsustainable motivations of humankind. Businesses are, ultimately, instruments of earning money first and social enterprises after. If that were not the case, they would be not considered ‘for-profit’. Therefore, the ultimate motivation for businesses is greed. Patents are supposed to channel greed into innovation by influencing people to invent and then protect their time and money investment through patents. As we learn from history, that is rarely the case.
I think that modern patent practices and laws in countries like the US do not serve to protect the small-time inventor, but are rather used between corporations to wage wars. In the second video, the lector expressed doubt about companies knowing if their cases were legitimate or not, arguing that neither would have invested so much into litigation if they did not. I think that in most blatantly obvious cases, companies knew what they were doing, but thought that the reward (had they succeeded) far outweighed the risks and expenditures suffered. The concept of biopiracy, in essence, is companies trying to make money out of thin air by patenting known things, or those considered common place. Same happens in other industries.
After the lecture, I did research on patents and their purpose in the larger economy. In effect, most laws are there to protect large-scale investment in research and development in high-tech industries like the IT or pharmaceuticals. The latter is directly responsible for life-saving drug prices costing as much as they do – the costs of production for most are minuscule, with most of the costs being paid to patent owners as royalties.
In effect, millions of people dying because of the inability to afford drugs and treatment are a direct result of the pharmaceutical industry holding on to their patents, extending the duration of said patents artificially (over the last 200 years, copyright duration was extended in the US from 55 to 105 years), and promoting the vertical transfer of wealth. It is of no surprise that most individuals that are in the top 1% of the richest people on the planet are extensive patent owners.
As the lector mentioned in the case with CIPLA, sometimes being a social enterprise means finding a way to circumvent the existing copyright and patent laws by operating from a country that does not acknowledge them fully. Indian laws on pharmaceutical copyrights and patents say that a drug is only protected if they invent a new molecule, which allows reproducing many life-saving drugs without having to pay exorbitant royalties to the patent owners. I think that is the right thing to do.
There is no proof of connection between harsh patent laws and innovativeness. At the same time, there is proof of patents making drugs inaccessible to millions of people, resulting in an innumerable number of preventable deaths. Based on what I have seen and my own research, social entrepreneurship should take advantage of the discrepancies in patent laws in order to bring affordable products and services to the people that need it most.
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