If Taxpayers Pay for It, Taxpayers Should Have Access to It
If Taxpayers Pay for It, Taxpayers Should Have Access to It
If Taxpayers Pay for It, Taxpayers Should Have Access to It

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    Myriad Genetics is using patents to suppress taxpayer funded medical technologies, just as journal publishers used copyrights to suppress taxpayer funded medical research.

    When our tax dollars go to funding potentially lifesaving medical technology research, we rightly have an expectation that the fruits of that research will be available to us as taxpayers. And it should concern us when companies, in the interest of making their own profits, raise the costs of and limit access to those technologies.

    Recently, Senator Leahy asked Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, to uphold these principles in a major patent dispute. Myriad Genetics developed a test for certain genetic indicators of breast cancer, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad holds patents to these genes, and continues to refuse to allow others to test for them despite a rebuke from the Supreme Court.

    Because of this, women are forced to pay undue sums for what some have called an inferior test, and are unable to obtain a second opinion before making life-changing decisions. Because Myriad’s research was funded by NIH and because of Myriad’s adamant refusal to allow competition in the market, Senator Leahy asks that NIH use its authority, known as the “march-in rights,” to force Myriad to license its patents on reasonable terms.

    This much is known and has been well-reported in the news. What strikes me particularly, though, is the similarity to publishers of medical journals, who refused to grant access to research even though that research was federally funded through taxpayer dollars. When NIH implemented a policy requiring open access to research funded by NIH grants, publishers fought against that policy, wanting to monopolize copyrights in that research to maximize their profits, even at the expense of timely access to critical health care information by the public.

    Just as medical journals used copyright to suppress federally funded research from taxpayers, Myriad Genetics has used its patents to keep federally funded technology out of the hands of the public. We recognized then that American health and welfare should trump copyrights, and perhaps we should recognize that they trump patents as well.

    The patent battles of tomorrow are looking much like the copyright battles of yesterday. In a previous post, we looked at how 3D printing has brought patents to the consumer world, just as the Internet brought copyright into common parlance. Myriad has exposed how patents, just like copyrights, can stand in the way of access to medicine. For the many of us who supported open access to research, who were active in the fight about overbroad copyrights, perhaps it is time to add patents to our radar.

    Image credit Zephyris at the English language Wikipedia.