Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2009


This essay focuses on the role of patents in relation to a potential global crisis such as an influenza pandemic or other public health crisis. I argue that patent rights will be largely ignored during an epidemic and that any post-crisis compensation would likely be low when compared to traditional patent rewards or settlements entered under threat of injunctive relief. In some situations, such as use of a patented invention by a state or local government, a patentee may have no recourse. Part III of the essay raises a separate issue that stems from the relatively long time frame for obtaining patent rights as compared with the time frame of an epidemic. Patent rights are only obtained through the typically slow process of patent prosecution. Consequently, innovation triggered by the onset of an epidemic might not be protected by patent rights until well after the crisis has abated. This realization suggests that the role of patents rests with longer-term preparation and follow-up, rather than with protecting innovations triggered by the specific crisis itself. Certain classes of innovations without effective patent protection – such as anti-viral or anti-microbial treatments that are engineered only after isolating the offensive biologic agent. I conclude that patent rights offer little innovation incentive in the face of an impending crisis. Optimistically, under this same formulation, patents may provide an incentive to ensure that the crisis is never realized. Part V of the essay recognizes that innovation still takes place in the absence of enforceable patent rights. A wide variety of incentives play a role in innovation policy, and reduced patent value will not end innovation.



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