Experts from the world’s top engineering programs have come together to share knowledge about medical technology, hoping to make life-saving treatments more widely available. Importantly, they’re ensuring that patents, copyrights, and other legal restrictions don’t get between that knowledge and the people who need it most.
Open Licenses Provide Life-Saving Technology in a Crisis
The availability of ventilators has emerged as a limiting factor in treatment of the COVID-19 virus, prompting researchers to imagine alternatives to the proprietary machines most commonly in use, which cost $30,000 each. At the forefront of this wave of innovation are experts at universities like MIT and Rice, demonstrating that open innovation isn’t just the realm of do-it-yourself hobbyists, but the world’s top engineering and medical minds.
Engineering teams are working on ways to adapt existing, medical-grade supplies that hospitals already have on hand to act as an emergency substitute for ventilators when better machines are not available. (Other low-cost ventilator units have been developed by teams such as one at Stanford, but would require the better part of a year to ramp up manufacturing.)
Open innovation isn’t just the realm of do-it-yourself hobbyists, but the world’s top engineering and medical minds.
When a crisis highlights the flaws in the status quo, responsible innovators can provide a path forward and save lives. A read through the MIT project’s resource page illustrates the complexity and perils of this project: the device must be both safe and useful, it must not provide a false sense of efficacy that delays a patient’s transfer to a different means of treatment, and it must measure and present certain data to enable doctors to monitor their patients’ conditions. In addition to publishing their designs, the team is publishing the requirements that clinicians have communicated to them and the results of testing the device. In a short time, the team has already published data on the use of these devices in pigs.
All of this collaboration is enabled by open licensing such as Creative Commons and free or “libre” software licenses, which provide for the easy sharing and modification of the source material. And working in the open doesn’t mean a sacrifice in quality. Rather, scientists know that the best way to understand a problem and create innovative solutions is through open collaboration. No one should have the veto power of copyright or patent law to prevent the sharing of knowledge about how to combat disease or build a life-saving device. Decisions about how to adjust medical devices in the field should be made by engineering and medical professionals, not the attorney who filed for a patent on it.
Some Companies are Promising Not to Enforce Their IP Rights
Old patents and copyrights that have nothing to do with COVID-19 can still get in the way of COVID-19 research taking place today. We recently wrote about Labrador Diagnostics, the patent troll that sued a company for offering COVID-19 tests. Labrador’s portfolio of patents came from Theranos, the fraudulent blood testing company that closed in 2018. Even though Labrador didn’t have a working product—and Theranos’ technology underlying its patents was dubious, to say the least—those patents still got in the way of lifesaving work. That’s why it’s essential that governments limit the damage that patent abusers can do to the fight against COVID-19. In recent weeks, lawmakers in Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, and Israel have taken steps to disentangle COVID-19 research from patent abuse through compulsory licenses.
Some companies have done their part to ensure that their intellectual property holdings don’t get in the way of the fight against COVID-19 either. The Open COVID Pledge is a simple pledge an IP owner can take not to assert its patents or copyrights against a company or organization fighting COVID-19. Tech giant Intel and patent aggregator Unified Patents were the first two companies to sign the pledge. While the Open COVID Pledge is certainly a much narrower commitment than persistent open licenses, it does ensure that those companies won’t stand in the way of the fight against this pandemic.
In recent weeks, lobbyists for patent owners have pushed a narrative that current laws are insufficiently protective of patents to fight COVID-19, even arguing for a bill sponsored by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) that would add an extra ten years to the patent term for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. It’s absurd to think that the medical experts leading the fight against the virus are holding back their creativity until they get additional patent protections. This proposal also ignores the reality that the public is already paying for a substantial portion of medical research in the United States—including research into affordable ventilators. It’s in the public’s best interest to have those technologies shared far and wide, not encumbered by patent and copyright restrictions.
The false premise underlying proposals like Sen. Sasse’s bill is that innovation depends on the financial incentive provided by monopolies. Open innovation belies the idea that monopoly-based markets guide the best research decisions. Of course, research requires resources and skilled scientists. But a monopoly on the insights and innovations that research produces is far from the only way or the best way to encourage work that will improve—and even save—lives.