Who Owns Science?

Via the P2P Foundation blog, I ran across some impassioned back and forth over the issue of IP in the realm of scientific research. The clash begins with a November 2009 manifesto published by the University of Manchester’s Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation (ISEI), in tandem with the Brooks World Poverty Institute

Entitled Who Owns Science?: The Manchester Manifesto [PDF], the report takes as its underlying platform the argument that the core purpose of scientific innovation is (or should be) to serve the public good and from that perspective, lays out an extensive series of particular points regarding current systems of IP as it relates to scientific research and innovation and in doing so reaches the conclusion that,

the dominant existing model of innovation, while serving some necessary purposes for the current operation of innovation, also impedes achievement of core scientific goals in a number of ways. In many cases it restricts access to scientific knowledge and products, thereby limiting the public benefits of science; it can restrict the flow of information, thereby inhibiting the progress of science; and it may hinder innovation through the costly and
complicated nature of the system. Limited improvements may be achieved through modification of the current IP system, but consideration of alternative models is urgently required.

The London-based Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) immediately and unsurprisingly struck back at the report (again, this funny collective/private tightrope walk of the professional association). In my opinion, their three most important assertions are these:

– Patents can’t be used to prevent a product coming onto the market – if demand for a product is not met on ‘reasonable terms’ then, subject to certain safeguards, anyone can apply to the IPO for a compulsory licence under the patent. The competition authorities can also take action if patents are abused.
– Patents do not prevent universities from carrying out research – acts done for ‘experimental purposes’ don’t infringe.
[…]
– The alternative to patenting university research is that big business would get a free ride – they could use the work of universities to make profits for themselves.

In response, ISEI points out the employment of IP law to prevent the distribution of generic drugs as well as the fact that the blurred lines between academic reseach and “pre-commercial” development of scientific products within universities makes the boundaries of protected reseach uncles. Further, they argue that they are not seeking the abolition of IP altogether, but rather “to bring [IP] far more into line with the public interest – and indeed with the interests of the goose that lays the golden eggs and creates the discovery on which not only the IP Law industry, but civilization relies, namely science and technology research.”

They also very successfully create a class intervention into CIPA’s association between IP profits and innovation:

The IP system is a tool for encouraging innovation for drugs for rich markets, but this mechanism does nothing about affordability, leading to the problems of access described. In the absence of a rich market, the IP tool is of no help in creating incentives to discover and manufacture drugs, leading to the problem of neglected diseases for which the “necessary investment to discover and manufacture” drugs is lacking.

More information on ISEI’s research into the question of who owns science can be found here.

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