Last Monday, October 26, 2009, I had the opportunity to discuss gene patents on GritTV with host Laura Flanders. I appeared on the show via Skype video along with David Koepsell, the author of Who Owns You? , who was in the studio. I was supposed to be in New York City with David to debate him at Cardozo Law School, and then over tot he GritTV studios, but I was unfortunately under the weather and unable to make the trip. Thankfully the producers were able to connect us via Skype, and I was able to down some DayQuil and manage to get through the 12 minute segment, which appears below. I think this segment came out quite well, and Flanders did an excellent job. Before the tape started rolling she told us both that after reading the material we both submitted she didn’t know what she believed, because both sides raise good points. I think you will see she did a very even handed job, and I hope she picks up with this more in the future. It was clear she did her homework and facilitated a fair exchange, which is all you can ask for in such a format.
The only point I would have elaborated was the non-inventiveness of cDNA, which involves a brief scientific explanation: mRNA does the exact same thing in our bodies, and has done so since evolution began. I hope you will link to my latest blog post, which says everything else, beyond an academic discussion, and makes the point about this issue that I would really like you to see: more people are hurt by gene patents than helped, the corporations want this to be a legal/academic debate, but there’s something even more important: helping people. My solution isn’t communist, and I am not Hugo Chavez (as you alluded once to those of us on this side of the issue). In fact, I’m radically free-market. I hate government sponsored monopolies. You have admitted there is no natural right to IP, and our choices about what is covered are thus entirely up to us. Genes are being patented, they are not sufficiently man-made to warrant it, and people are being hurt.
Search your heart, I think you realize it’s time for something to give on this issue. It won’t collapse the economy, it won’t even slow down research, it will help. Even in our debate, you stated that something has to change. This is something that we can change, and improve people’s lives, and cut through the greed. Myriad doesn’t need the additional $3 billion it will make, marking up the costs of this test to $3800. It costs a lab only about $400 to do this test without a patent. We need to re-examine our priorities.
I too wish I had an opportunity to raise some additional things, and in retrospect I wish I time to say a little more.
The goal of the patent system is to encourage innovation, which from a policy standpoint we have always viewed as something extremely positive for society and the public at large. The cost of innovation, particularly in those areas where we desire innovation the most, is quite high and only growing. Critics of the patent system frequently are critical of granting exclusive protections to incremental advances, and say that they want large leaps and patents to protect those inventions that demonstrate a significant advance, perhaps even paradigm shifting inventions. These types of innovations are radical, industry changing or even industry making. They also require exorbitant amounts of money, and often the research and development is exceptionally speculative.
The way to foster the type of innovations that we want and that society benefits from is by having strong patent protections that give to innovators exclusive rights for a limited period of time. Without strong exclusive rights we would not obtain nearly the level of private funding of research and development. This is evidenced by what we see around the globe in history, as well as today. Those countries that have the strongest patent protections are where industry leading corporations locate. Countries that have little, no or weak patent rights are not welcoming to industry. This means that little money is invested, few jobs (or no jobs) are created and the economy suffers.
While increasingly anti-patent critics say that with patent rights no generics will be made and the public will never reap the rewards. That is simply not true. When an invention goes off patent it is free to be used by anyone without payment. The trouble is that the anti-patent crowd seems to want no patents period, and when the patented inventions they complain about today are off patent they no longer have interest, and are on to arguing about whatever the newest patented innovation is. This has always been the case, and is evidenced by the anti-patent AIDS community. Rather than focus on the thousands of off-patent drugs that could save hundreds of thousands or millions of people each year for virtually no money, they focus on the patented drugs. The goal is not to help people, it is to help people with AIDS, or to simply attempt to break patents.
In this interview we discussed the ACLU case against Myriad Genetics. This is a horrible case for the anti-patent community to rally behind because those who are complaining about the patents in question are complaining because they want to know whether they have a predisposition for certain cancer. The test will not help them treat the cancer, it won’t even tell them if they have the cancer, it will just tell them whether they are more likely to develop cancer. They also complain that they would not be able to obtain a second opinion, but that is a lie. They can get a second opinion interpreting the test results, they just cannot force Myriad to allow others to conduct a second test. This is hardly a life-saving situation, but the fate of an entire industry and the advances it could bring in the future hang in the balance.
For what it is worth, I personally like David Koepsell, and I think he is an honorable man with strong beliefs. I think he is misguided, but his passion is real. I feel he wants to do the right thing, and he is hardly anti-innovation. I just think the path he would pursue would lead to less innovation.
In the past, in one blog post I suggested that the anti-patent crowd were no different than Hugo Chavez. That was a low blow, and I apologize for it. I think many in the anti-patent crowd are socialists, and on many levels are politically and ideologically aligned with Chavez, but he is such a divisive character that statement really was not helpful in forwarding the debate, particularly to the extent it was directed David Koepsell. David says he is pro-free-market, and I believe him.
Unfortunately, we do not have a free market. There is tremendous governmental regulations that apply to all kinds of innovation and prevent inventions from reaching the marketplace. While I am completely against anything that would weaken the patent system or patent rights, to the extent that we ever do have any serious political discussions regarding dismantling or weakening the patent system then we need to also have a full, fair and frank discussion about dismantling the regulation of business. So often the anti-patent crowd generally (not Koepsell) laughs at those who believe in patents and want a free market. Of course they do this while saying they are pro-free-market and anti-patent, but without any desire to deregulate business. You just can’t have your cake and eat it too though. If we are going to regulate business we don’t have a free market, and if we want a desirable level of innovation we need to rectify the existence of onerous regulations by providing the required incentive to invest large sums of money on speculative endeavors.
Now let the comments begin. Lets try and keep it civil if we can (saying this to remind myself as much as anyone). Many may believe Koepsell is the enemy, and while is position is different from ours he is a nice guy who is willing to engage, so he deserves a lot of respect.