Saturday, August 15, 2009

Patent pools in global health

This year UNITAID announced plans to establish a patent pool for medicines "to provide patients in low and middle income countries with increased access to more appropriate and lower price medicines." A task force is working out the details. Glaxo-Smith Kline similarly announced support for a voluntary patent pool to encourage innovation in neglected diseases afflicting the world's poor.

These patent pools are a different breed than the more traditional ones based on cross-licensing structures and typically found in standard-driven industries -- like the MPEG LA patent pool that licenses portfolios of patents essential to downstream innovation using this technology for digital video compression. Traditional pools usually contain carefully selected technologies, have pre-negotiated licensing arrangements, and require significant resources to create and manage.

GSK's commitment to global health priorities is well-established (e.g. its partnership with Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)). But for this new foray into the world of patent pools, it is still too early to tell whether there is likely to be any real impact on innovation in global health technologies. If the patents in these "pools" are offered under standardized and practical licensing terms, it would serve to reduce transaction costs and increase accessibility. Implementing standardized licensing language, though, is a real challenge.

If, instead, companies gather patents that are loosely technically related, post the information online, and simply note that they are open for negotiating licenses for uses in developing country applications, the PR benefits could be much greater than the real impact on innovation.

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