Profile: Shamnad Basheer is the founder of SpicyIP, India’s premier blog on IP and innovation law and policy. Basheer was the first Ministry of Human Resource Development Chaired Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, and a Frank H. Marks Visiting Associate Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC. For his various contributions to IP law, Prof Basheer was awarded the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2014 by a jury headed by Nobel laureate Prof Amartya Sen. He was also rated as one of the top 50 global IP leaders in 2015 by Managing Intellectual Property.
JMM: The years after TRIPS have seen a number of battles in developing countries over IP rights. In response, some developing countries like India have incorporated measures such as Form 27 requirements for patents and Section 3(d) in the Patents Act to prevent over-broad exclusionary rights. What explains the presence of such creative interpretation of inherent flexibilities in some developing countries and their absence in others?
SB: Indeed! Some developing countries such as India have been a little more successful in using TRIPS flexibilities than others. I believe this is due to several factors:
Firstly, you need a very strong domestic constituency that prods the government to actively exploit TRIPS flexibilities. In the case of India, there were two very powerful constituencies at play –
a. We have a very strong generic industry, which has historically benefited from a not-so-stringent patent regime and was keen on ensuring the widest possible use of TRIPS flexibilities so that they could continue to remain competitive in a market that was soon to be flooded with pharmaceutical patents.
b. Also, a very powerful civil society played an important role in shaping the 2005 Amendments to the Patents Act, which contained a number of flexibilities to rein in the impact of pharmaceutical patents.
Thanks to the powerful advocacy of these two constituencies, we see measures such as section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act, strong compulsory licensing and patent working provisions, parallel import provisions, strong Bolar provisions etc.
Further the spirited defense by our domestic generic majors in patent infringement actions by multinational pharmaceutical companies triggered a strong line of public interest jurisprudence from our Courts. All of this contributed to a relatively more progressive patent regime than present in a number of other developing countries.
Even if domestic industry interest has begun aligning itself more with the interests of Big Pharma, with whom they are partnering in large numbers, the fact that we have an active civil society that continues to challenge problematic patents is a great boon for patients and public health.
Secondly, though not a perfect democracy, India’s law and policy making processes are relatively more transparent than a number of other developing countries. This permits civil society and the wider public, including the academia, to engage with law makers and influence the course of patent policy in India.
Thirdly, the adversarial litigation system and the relative openness of our court processes and procedures, coupled with a vibrant media helped infuse more public interest norms and TRIPS flexibilities within Indian patent decisions.
JMM: How far have measures undertaken by the governments and the judiciaries of developing countries been able to balance public interest and rising exclusionary norms that are coming to characterize global IP regimes?
SB: On the issue of balancing a private patent monopoly interest with the larger public interest, I think a lot more needs to be done. I still can’t get over the fact that despite extensive engagement by the civil society and the public with IP issues, we still have so many Free Trade Agreements being signed! Not to mention the highly opaque TPP agreement which just got signed and will certainly take us back to the dark ages in terms of the gains in a more progressive vision of IP and its place in the changing knowledge economy which relies more on openness and sharing. As a result of these pressures from the Western nations and the corporations that lobby them to take these hard-hearted stances, many countries will be under pressure to desist from deploying their full range of TRIPS flexibilities and will never be able to infuse more public health and public interest concerns within their domestic regimes. So these regimes will remain unbalanced at least for the foreseeable future, I’m afraid.
However, this is not just a simple developed versus developing countries concern. Even within developed countries, there is a lot of rethink on the role of patents in innovation. An increasingly heated discussion on the downside of patents and their deleterious impact on innovation is taking place, thanks to the advent of trolls and various other funny creatures that have cropped up due to an excessive one-sided ratcheting up of IP rights and enforcement.
If these developed country lobbies that are critical of the patent regime get stronger, there might be hope for a more sweeping IP paradigm change the world over! And perhaps a lot more developing countries may be freer to begin experimenting with TRIPS flexibilities.
JMM: The generic drug industry of India is world renowned for making life saving medicines accessible to a large part of the world. This industry had actively opposed the revision to the patent law in 1970 and there was a belief that the interests of the generic drug industry coincided with the interests of Indian patients. In the years since 1970, these industries have experienced tremendous growth and even as there are 50-60 companies making identical generic medicines the market is dominated by 3-4 companies. How far would you say the interests of the generic drug industry overlap with the interests of the Indian patients now?
SB: Great question! The interests between the domestic generic industry and civil society in India clearly overlapped earlier, but unfortunately there is an increasing divergence today. The clearest example of this is Cipla, an Indian Robin Hood of sorts, which fearlessly took on global MNCs and slashed prices of HIV medications and promoted access to affordable medication.
Today they prefer to partner and meekly sign up to problematic licensing arrangements with Big Pharma such as the one they signed with Sovaldi, a notoriously priced Hep C drug by Gilead. Incidentally, this patent was initially challenged in India by Natco and Zydus, but these companies later signed up to partnerships with Gilead, after which they dropped their patent challenges! So much for relying on our generic majors to protect the public health turf and guard our interests! But perhaps that is not their job! For after all, these are “corporations” at the end and the quest for more profits and dividends to satisfy their shareholders is hard wired into their very DNA!
It is this “corporate” sense and sensibility that is driving this increasing partnership between Indian generic companies and foreign multinationals. Originator drug makers want to show a “generic” face to governments that are racing to squeeze public health budgets and cut costs by tendering more generic supplies. Similarly our generic majors want to be the next Teva, and come up with the next big molecule that will help them rake in some serious moolah! Therefore partnerships with big pharmaceutical companies are attractive propositions for generic manufactures to enhance their R&D skill sets. Leading to what I call the “Ardhnarishwar” model, a term of art from Hindu divinity, referring as it does to a godlike figure comprising half man and half woman. In our context, this term roughly translates to: half originator: half generic!
These cozy connects between originator and generic firms may perhaps help explain why there are no compulsory license applications in India, despite Natco’s stellar success with the first license application concerning Bayer’s excessively priced Nexavar. Worryingly, the number of patent oppositions from generic companies against originator patent applications are also coming down.
In all, the gap between generic interests and patient interests are widening. As a result of this there is increasing pressure on civil society to fight the good fight and continue opposing frivolous pharma patents!
JMM: You were part of a team that played a pivotal role in getting through, the amendment to the Indian Copyright Act in relation to the exception that made it legal to convert copyrighted content to forms accessible for the disabled. Has the amendment satisfactorily addressed issues of access that the disabled face in India? Do you think other measures are also required to supplement this?
SB: I think the Indian exception is one of the broadest in the world and needs to be applauded. One of the rare instances where politicians across party lines supported the Amendment after we had advocated for it for more than a year! All thanks to the wonderful Rahul Cherian (unfortunately snatched away from us thanks to a quirk of fate) and his ability to bring a number of disability activists, policy makers and academics together to achieve this phenomenal outcome.
Though the government did not endorse our proposal in its entirety, the final clause that found its way into the Copyright Amendment Act 2012 comes close to what we had suggested.
Unfortunately, despite this stellar statutory provision, I’m not sure how many people on the ground are actively deploying it, at least as third party organizations that work for the benefit of the differently-abled. We need to create more awareness around this provision and its potential for social transformation.
JMM: The informal economy represents a major share of output and employment in middle and low income countries. In these countries the informal economy is a major area of innovation though little is known about what incentives prompt individuals and communities to innovate. What do you think is the role of IP in informal sectors and how has the relative absence of IP in such fields affected knowledge diffusion?
SB: I think the honest answer to this question is that we don’t know because no one has ever really studied this sector! At least in terms of its innovation ecosystem and its dynamics- what drives creativity here, how is it diffused, and how are ideas translated to products? Are people driven by money or by love of their fellow humans or do they create for reputational benefits, as is the case with open source software? Or is there is some mystical magic to all of this, where people believe they are conduits for a higher energy/force such as traditional medicinal healers who don’t charge any money for their medicines or healing?
I explored some of these aspects for a short piece I did for WIPO as part of a joint project with other academics and policy makers. We came across anecdotal evidence to suggest that the innovation ecosystem in the informal economy differs in important particulars from that of the formal economy. Of course, a lot more needs to be done to understand this sector. In the meantime, the assumption that blindly transposing IP regimes built largely for the formal sector will somehow unleash creativity within the informal sector is highly misguided! Rather than blithely assuming that the informal sector needs to learn from the formal sector, perhaps we could learn from them?
JMM: The Delhi University Photocopy case which involved a small photocopy shop in Delhi being taken to Delhi High Court for copyright infringement by big publishing houses such as Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press for photocopying copyrighted content belonging to these presses. The copyrighted content in dispute involved course-packs recommended by the University with excerpts from several books. The Indian Copyright Act’s fair dealing provision incorporated specifically provides an exception for educational use in Section 52(1)(i) and in that sense is wider than fair dealing provisions in some other parts of the world. Yet the Delhi High Court issued a temporary injunction restraining the photocopying shop from selling the (allegedly) infringing course-packs until the case was decided. Leaving aside the outcome of the case, do you think countries like India require explicit guidelines from the Executive that categorically state that photocopying of academic material does not constitute copyright infringement like in Costa Rica to isolate such uses from judicial construction or do you have any other such suggestions that can work well in the Indian context?
SB: This case is currently pending before the Delhi High Court and we are awaiting the court’s decision. So clearly, at this stage, we need to wait for guidance from the courts. To a large majority of us, it is very clear that educational photocopying is exempt under the terms of section 52(1)(i). The publishers of course don’t seem to think so. Therefore I think it would be best for the court to issue the verdict and provide clarity. If the final ruling does not favour educational use in the way that we seek to now advocate, we may need to persuade our lawmakers to then amend the law and make this clearer. I am hoping things don’t come to that and that the judge rules in favour of a robust and strong educational exception, which is what Parliament intended when they crafted the exception.
At this stage however, I don’t think Executive fiat will work, particularly since there is a statute in place and a judge is currently interpreting that very statutory provision. More importantly, relying on the Executive is a double edged sword, given the money and lobbying power of the publishing industry, more than amply demonstrated when the last government under Minister Kapil Sibal did a volte face and removed a provision at the last minute that would have fully exempted parallel imports from the scope of copyright infringement.
JMM: Can you shed some light on the term ‘public interest’ since different stakeholders such as governments, pharmaceutical companies, activists and academics are all working in ‘public interest’ and yet their paths towards achieving ‘public interest’ diverge more often than converge?
SB: This is a difficult question to answer! You are right: public interest means different things to different people. At one level, even a big pharmaceutical corporation that takes out a patent can invoke public interest stating that they are inventing the drug in public interest…and that, but for the introduction of the drug, there would be no question of access at all!
Therefore the term itself is a bit relative. But to the extent that it helps, one might need to examine it on the specifics of each case and determine whether the argument being advanced by a party is really furthering personal interest or the interests of the community or society at large. Good faith is a large part of this equation and it can help determine if what one is doing is in larger public interest or private interest.
 Shamnad Basheer has been a research fellow at the Institute of Intellectual Property, Tokyo, an International Bar Association scholar and an Inter‑Pacific Bar Association scholar. He is also the founder and managing trustee of Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA), a non-profit body that aims to empower under privileged communities by facilitating access to legal knowledge and education to the common man.