India’s Patently Wise Decision

NEW YORK – The Indian Supreme Court’s refusal to uphold the patent on Gleevec, the blockbuster cancer drug developed by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, is good news for many of those in India suffering from cancer. If other developing countries follow India’s example, it will be good news elsewhere, too: more money could be devoted to other needs, whether fighting AIDS, providing education, or making investments that enable growth and poverty reduction.

But the Indian decision also means less money for the big multinational pharmaceutical companies. Not surprisingly, this has led to an overwrought response from them and their lobbyists: the ruling, they allege, destroys the incentive to innovate, and thus will deal a serious blow to public health globally.

These claims are wildly overstated. In both economic and social-policy terms, the Indian court’s decision makes good sense. Moreover, it is only a localized effort at rebalancing a global intellectual-property (IP) regime that is tilted heavily toward pharmaceutical interests at the expense of social welfare. Indeed, there is a growing consensus among economists that the current IP regime actually stifles innovation.

The impact of strong IP protection on social welfare has long been considered ambiguous. The promise of monopoly rights can spur innovation (though the most important discoveries, like that of DNA, typically occur within universities and government-sponsored research labs, and depend on other incentives). But there often are serious costs as well: higher prices for consumers, the dampening effect on further innovation of reducing access to knowledge, and, in the case of life-saving drugs, death for all who are unable to afford the innovation that could have saved them.