Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Manchester Manifesto

The University of Manchester Institute of Science Ethics and Innovation has published a document entitled Who Owns Science? The Manchester Manifesto which has generated a good deal of controversy and discussion. It comprises only six pages of text, including a page of background and one of conclusions and signatories. The Manifesto has been received by the patent community as an attack on the patent system, and – they think – a misguided one. Read the response of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys here.

The Manifesto questions the value of intellectual property in general, but is concerned mostly, perhaps exclusively, with patents. The problem, put briefly, is that we treat innovations as a form of private property, through the medium of the patent system. Is this an appropriate model for dealing with innovation? It;s a big an important questions, which unfortunately has become embroiled in a series of much smaller questions.

CIPA’s response was a thorough debunking of what the manifesto says about patents:
  • Patents cannot be used to stop a product coming to market, because of competition laws and compulsory licensing (but surely that only means there’s a safety valve, and you need to know how to operate it and have the means to do so before that helps).
  • Patents don’t prevent universities doing research (but is the research exemption clear enough, and widely understood?) And does it allow you to make the most of your research?)
  • Institutions like Manchester University do rather well out of the patent system, and Manchester has a Technology Transfer office to deal with all the valuable stuff being produced.
  • If Universities could not protect their work with patents, big business (what about small business?) could take a free ride (but some alternative method of protection could surely be devised to avoid this happenijng).
  • The patent system promotes rahterh than inhibits knowledge-sharing, because patent applications are published as part of the process. (Yes, but patentees hold back as much as they can and keep that information secret.)
Joseph Stiglitz, one of the many signatories to the Manifesto, is also accused by CIPA of continuing to make misleading claims that human genes and other life forms can be patented. OK, as CIPA says no patent system actually allows thos, but they do allow claims that come close to having this effect (and applicants will do their best to get the most extensive rights they can). In the same way, software patents are not allowed but there are plenty of patents around that cover software. This is usrely a disctinction without a difference.

As for the contntious issue of access to drugs, the patent system has (as CIPA note) encouraged innovation – but blaming politics and economics for blocking access to drugs for poor countries is misleading. If the patents didn’t exist, there would be no tools for blocking access – and even with patents, the owners choose to use them in this way (perhaps driven by economics, and shareholder interests).

What about the main thrust of the Manifesto’s attach on IP? The fact is that patents are a major deterrent to people who fear that their activities might infringe. Manchester Universtity, and others, might be able to use the research exemption but if they get it wrong they might jeopardise a large part of what the Technology Transfer office has earned. Patents are frequently owned by large companies with whom you don’t want to pick fights. They don’t own science, but a lot of the territory around science has been privatised. It’s pertinent to ask whether placing knowledge in private ownership really is the best way to encourage innovation in the intersts of humnaity as a whole, or whether it places too much power in too few hands. As the modern saying goes, is the patent system fit for purpose? Or would something else – just touched on in the Manifesto, examined a few years ago in greater depth by the Royal Society of Arts – do the job better?

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