Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pharma patent loss is a win for healthcare and free software in India

In January 2006, India's Patent Office rejected a patent application for Gleevec, a leukemia cancer drug by Swiss pharmaceutical Novartis. Now, in August 2007, the Chennai High Court has rejected Novartis' appeal to overturn this rejection.

Novartis claims that India's ruling will stunt R&D and innovation in pharmaceuticals and violates WTO intellectual property agreements. But the Indian government sees this decision as helping ensure that affordable medicines continue to be available for her people and those of other developing countries. Such medicines are essential to combat killer diseases like AIDS and cancer. Indian companies manufacture generic Gleevec (known as Glivec in India) for one-tenth the price offered by Novartis.

Why does this matter? India's ruling will deter international pharma giants from trying to extend their monopolies by patenting newer versions of existing medicines. This ruling allows India to continue manufacturing inexpensive generic drugs. For example, 85% of AIDS generics to Africa are provided by India's pharmaceuticals. That's significant.

This precedent also establishes a model for rejecting software patents in India. The arguments that favor availability of generic medicines equally apply to free and open source software (FOSS). India cannot afford the monopolies and high prices brought about by software patents. FOSS is the only practical way developing nations can afford long-term, large-scale IT automation. Without automation, India and others cannot scale to provide the infrastructure and banking, education and health care needed to ensure prosperity for billions of people across the globe.