Is the patent system stifling nanotechnology?

Will “blocking patents” delay nanotech advances, as has happened with biotechmedical advances? A Canadian non-profit group named The Innovation Partnership has released a report titled “Toward a New Era of Intellectual Property: from Confrontation to Negotiation” (PDF) that advocates a move away from holding as many patents as possible and toward collaborating and sharing information. As described by James Morgan, Science reporter, BBC News “Patent system ‘stifling science’“:

Life-saving scientific research is being stifled by a “broken” patent system, according to a new report.

“Blocking patents” are delaying advances in cancer medicine and food crops, says the Canada-based Innovation Partnership, a non-profit consultancy.

The full benefits of synthetic biology and nanotechnology will not be realised without urgent reforms to encourage sharing of information, they say.

Their findings will be reported next week to UK policymakers and NGOs.

The report is compiled by the Innovation Partnership’s International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property.

It cites examples of medical advances which have been delayed from reaching people in need — in both the developed and developing world.

These include HIV/Aids drugs and cancer screening tests.

The authors offer guidelines for a transition from “Old IP” to “New IP”, in which companies, researchers and governments recognise that sharing information is mutually beneficial.

“If we are to turn the atoms of publicly funded discovery into molecules of innovation… we have to make sure research avenues stay open,” said the report’s lead author, Professor Richard Gold.

“That doesn’t mean there will be no patents. It simply means that patents don’t become a barrier to early stage research.

“We do not want to end up in the same situation with nanotechnology that we are in with genetics.”

…Fears that these patents may be too broad have been raised by the ETC Group, which campaigns for the reform of biotech patenting.

“The patenting system is not functioning. It is more of a barrier than an incentive,” said Pat Mooney, the organisation’s executive director.

“In pharmacy, we no longer see much discovery — we see firms playing safe and holding onto their turf.

“Meanwhile, in nanotechnology, we have seen some dangerously broad patents, which cut off whole areas of research.

“Patent offices must get up to speed with new areas of science, so they know exactly how much they are giving away.”

Given the positions that Pat Mooney and the ETC Group have taken with respect to nanotechnology in the past, such as their Call for moratorium on commercial nanomaterials, I was not expecting to find myself in agreement with them, but the comments quoted above seem to me to be on target. And I suspect that the more complex and interdisciplinary nanotechnology becomes as it advances, the worse the problem will get.

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