A very interesting article on the BBC website last month describes a legal battle over a “hunger wonder product”. “Legal fight over Plumpy’nut, the hunger wonder-product”
The product is “Plumpy’nut” (more details on the Wikipedia page) and there are lots of emotive issues!
1)Children are starving, 2)There is a product that helps reduce illness and death from malnutrition, 3)This product is protected by a patent held by a private company based in France; Nutriset[i]. 4) Nutriset now face a lawsuit because the “patents on its therapeutic food formulas are overly broad, prohibiting other groups from producing similar food intended for malnourished people”[ii]
As I said, lots of emotive issues…
An allbusiness.com link reported that Doctors without Borders released an open letter:
“…scolding Nutriset for hindering efforts by other groups to distribute products similar to its formulas. “There needs to be more than one [worldwide] supplier to ensure a secure supply chain,” wrote Dr. Tido von Schoen-Angerer in a November 2009 letter. “The intellectual property pertaining to nutritional products of a humanitarian nature must therefore be handled differently from that pertaining to commercial products.”
And therein lies the argument that underpins this, and many other similar stories. IP relating to a product with a humanitarian nature should somehow be “handled differently”. The BBC article highlighted a quote from Stephane Doyon of Medecins Sans Frontieres:
“in a domain as sensitive as humanitarian aid [patents] need to be handled with extreme flexibility”.
But how? Are we looking at a failing in the current system, an error, or a change in expectations of what a patent should do? Arguably, without IP protection many innovations would fail to materialise. One argument brought forward in the article was that IP protected by Nutriset[iii] can be used for development purposes. The Nutriset’s communications manager was quoted as saying
“If the US companies were able to beat the patent, the global volume of RUTFs would of course go up. But it would also mean the end for our local partners in Africa, who wouldn’t be able to compete. That is not what we want.”
How can we ensure these ends are protected too?
There is one group that has a suggestion, and they are working towards realising the idea! View this short clip for more details. An inspiring presentation given at Davos 2010 for “Global Responsibility Licencing“.
[i] Click here for the patent information and here for information about Nurtiset. [ii] See also “Fullbright goes pro bono in IP case over food for the hungry” for information about the case. They have apparently been issuing cease-and-desist letters to competitors. [iii] Nutriset position themselves as a “company 100% dedicated to humanitarian programs nutrition” for information purposes note they are a private enterprise