Evidence Against Patent Regimes

It’s always interesting to see certain people either be unopposed or supportive of constricting, draconian patent enforcement. The high costs of prescription drugs — largely as a result of patent monopolies — show the negative possibilities of government intervention when it’s for the corporate interests over the public interests.

In the U.S., most of the important research for prescription drug breakthroughs was done through taxpayer-funded research and development via institutions such as the NIH. The large corporations then often turn around and use that research for profits that are harmful for the public. That is one of the most prominent examples of the fundamental maliciousness in the state capitalist system.

In the last four decades, US policymakers have taken major steps to strengthen and lengthen patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property (IP). The normal duration of patents and copyrights have been extended, and patents have been expanded to cover life forms, software, and business methods. This strengthened IP regime has been supported by both political parties and has gone largely unquestioned in public debate.

That’s unfortunate, because there is an enormous amount of money at stake, and an enormous amount of money that is being redistributed from the bulk of the population to those in a position to benefit from owning intellectual property. While far from flashy, intellectual property rights have wide-ranging implications. They should be front and center on any progressive agenda.

The case of prescription drugs provides the best measure of the amount of money at stake. This year, the United States will spend more than $440 billion on drugs that would likely cost less than $80 billion without IP protections. This gap — more than $360 billion — is equal to almost 2 percent of GDP. It is almost a third of after-tax corporate profits.

And that’s just for prescription drugs. Add in the rents from patent and copyright protection in medical equipment, pesticides, fertilizers, seed crops, software, video games, and other areas and the figure could easily be twice as high. In other words, this is real money.