Intellectual property: whos stolen from whom

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Feb 4 2006, 05:30am hrs
Chairman & CEO of Pfizer Inc, Hank McKinnell, had reportedly made a comment which the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) believes is both slanderous as well as racist. Mr McKinnell made statements on winning a case against an Indian company at the district court in Delaware, US, challenging the patent rights relating to the drug, Lipitor. The Indian company was reportedly seeking to supply the lower cost generic version of this cholesterol-controlling drug but lost the case in this round. Mr McKinnell has been quoted in Financial Times as saying: This should be a message for companies in India that do have important scientific capabilities that they should not steal others innovations, but they should create technology for themselves.

IPA, an organisation of major players collectively accounting for one-third of pharma exports and 90% of R&D expenditure, believes that Para IV challenges are common practice and that singling out Indian companies and calling them stealers is a matter the Indian government must take up.

It may be worthwhile to let Mr McKinnell and such others recall that patents had, indeed, been created to protect monopolies than for stimulating innovations. The reasoning of economic incentives for innovators has indeed been used as a front to control knowledge, markets and prices. Patents started as exclusive privileges to the chosen few tradesmen, not innovators, in the 16th century. The letters of protection became letters patent to imply the openness in the communication. Frontier knowledge and new goods were created elsewhere, like India, China and the Middle East. India and China have acknowledgedly supplied tremendous knowledge over the centuries that actually became the foundation for creating subsequent property rights elsewhere. In the ultimate analysis, one cannot segregate the foundations in knowledge, say, the zero laid by India, from the intellectual property.

As Yvette Claire Rosser of Texas University wrote some years ago, India contributed to some interesting products that have become part of western life, just as a chilli or tomato came to us. For instance, the jeans of today are traceable to the export of a thick cotton cloth known as dungaree, dyed in indigo, which was sold near the Dongarii Fort near Mumbai in the 16th century. It was used by sailors and cut to suit them. Similarly, people in the West did not have a separate material to wash their hairthe idea of shampoo was reportedly taken by the Europeans in the 16th century. The act of chhaapnaa or chhaapuu reportedly became shampoo.

Patents were created to protect monopolies, rather than encourage innovation
NYTs said India possibly the biggest victim of piracy by western pharma cos
Indian pharma cos need meta-skills and strategy for a quick breakthrough
The New York Times has been cited as saying that India was probably the largest victim of piracy by western pharmaceutical companies, with 2,000 or 3,000 cases of misappropriation. If WR Grace loses a case in patenting neem pesticide, or if RiceTec loses one over basmati rice, that would be attributed to entrepreneurship than stealing. It is also good to recall the belated acknowledgment, in 1998, that while Marconi won the Nobel prize in 1909, it was Jagdish Boses know-how, published from Calcutta in the British proceedings of the Royal Society in 1899, that was copied. As piracy, both as a term and practice, has a long European history, it is indeed difficult to say who has been stealing from whom!

The IPA and other pharma organisations also have a more mature duty than merely to cry foul and run to the government. First, they must support the India brand by making the world aware of the dynamics of intellectual property and contribution of India to current knowledge and goods. They have the best reach to the world community by virtue of their international presence and must leverage that well.

Second, they must break away from the poor record in patenting and have a real breakthrough for their own sake, if not Indias. The rhetoric during the last decade or so is obviously not yielding much result. There is need for meta-skills and strategy for a rapid breakthrough. A strategic alliance with steep deadlines and milestones is the answer rather than individual pot-shots and running staid R&D establishments for fashion, hygiene or tax-breaks. Even as they grapple with breakthrough, there is no way that they can win the game over the more powerful corporations through discoveries alonethey must continue to challenge them on the basis of cost, but argue and justify better.