Time to restructure intellectual property lawIntellectual property law has become a cornerstone for capitalists to thrive at the expense of the working classes.
It is difficult to find a person who hasn’t heard the song “Happy birthday to you” at least once in a lifetime. The fact that it has traditionally been sung to celebrate birthdays makes it the most recognised of songs. But do we know that singing the song in public was prohibited before 2015? Warner Chappell Music, an American music publishing company, owned the copyright to the song until that year; if it had been performed in a public event prior to that, it would have resulted in the violation of the company’s right, followed by a lawsuit. This is one of the primary reasons restaurants tweaked the song and created a version of their own.
Like copyright, many other entitlements are protected under intellectual property (IP) law. IP law is the branch of law that offers protection against the creation of intellectual property—such as inventions, designs, artistic works, literature, and recipes—by prohibiting their unauthorised use. But just as there is no rose without a thorn, IP law has also become a cornerstone for capitalist industries to thrive at the expense of the working classes. Under the IP law, the capitalists have the right to be the sole manufacturer, producer, distributor or buyer of the goods they have produced or been granted a license for. As a result, these corporations often raise the prices of the necessities of life—such as medicines and agricultural products—changing them into a luxury that only a handful of people can afford.
Many cases exemplify the system defying its own intent, the most common being the music industry, where the distributor takes a large chunk of the income from music. Artists are usually owed only 12 percent of the total income made by music sales in the USA. The rest goes into the pocket of the middlemen, i.e., the music corporations. The Warner Music Group that holds the right to “Happy birthday to you” earned 2 million dollars in royalty in 2008 for a song written almost a hundred years ago by people who have been dead for decades.
Pharmaceutical companies similarly benefit from IP law protection. They have been using this privilege to create a monopoly by patenting the product and becoming its sole manufacturer. As if that was not enough, they charge a hefty sum on medicines, keeping the basic products out of the reach of the hard-ups. It is understandable that they charge a huge amount on drugs to recoup the research and development cost that went into creating these drugs. But pricing drugs in such a disproportionate manner does not sit well with the justification. The global pharmaceutical market is worth $1228.45 billion in 2020 and is growing at the rate of 1.8 percent per annum, thanks to the patent on these products. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) alone made a revenue of $93.78 billion in 2021.
Likewise, the drug “Lemtrada” was manufactured at the University of Cambridge to help patients with leukaemia. The pharma companies did a little more research on it and found that this drug in small doses would also help multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers. They rebranded the drug as a cure for MS treatment and priced it 20 times higher. Again, the prime reason behind this is the greed associated with money. They realised the market for MS sufferers was larger and wealthier than the market for leukaemia patients; so they raised the price of the same drug ridiculously as the formula for manufacturing the drug was protected under IP law.
Another example would be the minimal amount of capital and manpower invested in curing TB and malaria. Only two new drugs have been created for TB in the last 50 years, but far greater money has been invested in the research for the treatment of male pattern baldness despite the fact that the latter is not in as great need as the former; the reason—once again—is a higher profit potential in the latter.
This loophole in IP law has also affected the agricultural industry. Monsanto was the first company to put a patent on natural resources. The company genetically modified cotton seeds, patented them, priced them higher than other cotton seeds, and targeted Indian farmers. They convinced the farmers of its long-term benefits despite its high price. In reality, though, the farmers got the opposite of what was promised, and they were forced to bear a huge loss in the form of loans.
This raises a crucial question: Is there any way we can change the IP system? A change in the system is not only necessary but inevitable as well. A cultural shift in other industries is a testament to this. In the software industry, products free of intellectual property protection are giving those with intellectual property protection a tough competition. Microsoft and Oracle, for example, charge a license fee for their usage while an open-source system such as Linux forbids the use of intellectual property in its model. Based on past evidence, it is clear that open source has consistently out-innovated proprietary software.
Many argue that the IP system is flawed to the core. The apparent distinction between an innovation and a pirated copy is that the former has a novel characteristic and so falling on the other side of the spectrum would constitute a crime. The paradox, however, is that the distinction that IP makes between imitation and innovation is not black-and-white. In reality, anybody who has created anything knows that any innovation starts with and consists largely of imitation. To put it simply, innovation is not possible without imitation.
Even though the IP system is a blessing to the innovation industry and artistic works, it has made it difficult for ordinary people to meet basic necessities. Therefore, a liberal system that would distinguish commodities based on their urgency and necessity could be a solution. The first step towards this could be to take fundamental amenities out of the IP system and then make the system democratic and equitable. As long as the power to manufacture basic amenities such as medicines and agricultural crops is in the hands of few, monopoly will continue and so will the suffering of the poor.