In a welcome development, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has asked the 38 laboratories affiliated to it to desist from seeking patent protection for their inventions without carefully evaluating the pros and cons of doing so.
Accusing laboratories of filing applications for patent registration without conducting any techno-commercial or legal evaluation, Girish Sahni, the Director-General of the CSIR, has admonished the labs for following an ad hoc and unprincipled approach in this matter.
Noting the increasing (mis)use of patents as an instrument for career growth and professional advancement, he stated in his letter to the labs: “Individual scientists are using them for getting promotions and labs are playing number game. Once the patent is granted, neither the scientist nor the lab bothers about it. There is no serious attempt to find licensee and a review system to periodically look at the portfolio does not exist.”
This assertion, he argues, is further fortified by the fact that renewal of patents is sought merely at the behest of the concerned scientist, sans an objective and dispassionate inquiry, and the concerned patent, and the related know-how, is allowed to be abandoned once the scientist in question retires.
As Sahni notes, the cost of filing each Indian patent hovers around 2 lakh rupees and the cost of each American patent hovers around $20,000. Relying on the data for the year 2015-16, he contends that the filing of around 400 overseas patents cost the CSIR around 56 crore rupees – an unacceptably high sum for a cash-strapped organization.
In order to disincentivize the practice of indiscriminate patent filings, Sahni has made it clear to the labs that 25% of the cost of domestic patent filings and 50% of the cost of foreign patent filings will be borne by the concerned laboratory from now on. Recognizing the need to strike a healthy balance between the need to discourage frivolous patent filings on the one hand and foster robust growth of significant inventions on the other, his letter makes it clear that, if the laboratory in question is able to license the concerned invention, the CSIR will provide it a matching grant.
Sahni’s move comes as a much-needed course correction, one that is likely to pave the way for a balanced, principled and robust patent filing strategy at the CSIR. More specifically, as Prashant’s RTI query revealed, the CSIR had spent a staggering 74.24 crores on patent filings until 2012, 72.46 crores of which was spent on foreign filings. If this wasn’t enough, the CSIR refused to provide any concrete information about the manner in which it commercializes/licenses these patents or the details of the licensees.
While the CSIR did eventually disclose the details of the licensing arrangements that its labs had entered into, the data that provided further reinforced the need for the Council to re-consider its patenting strategy, inasmuch as it indicated that only 21.3% of the 1872 patents that CSIR owned were actually licensed [a press release indicates that the actual number is, in fact, 9%].
Further, none of the roughly 50 Form 27 statements of working submitted by CSIR that Prashant examined contained any meaningful information, in the shape of volume of sales, revenues earned and the like about the precise manner in which it had worked its patents .
CSIR has also strived hard to hide the royalties earned by it through its licensing arrangements behind a veil of secrecy, as is evident from Prashant’s posts available here and here. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Prashant’s inexorable conclusion that CSIR’s repeated attempts to devise subtle techniques to avoid disclosing any meaningful information about the patents that it holds are reflective of a fundamental culture of opacity that permeates the organization.
Viewed against this backdrop, one hopes that the CSIR’s decision to follow a more circumspect approach in patenting its inventions will usher in a culture of greater transparency, accountability and efficiency in the organization. Further, at a time when it increasingly appears that the actions of the Indian Government are informed by the belief that IP protection should be an end in itself, as evidenced by the launch of the logo for the Cell for IP Promotion and Management (CIPAM), the CSIR’s decision may go a long way in countering this lopsided conception of the role of IP in fostering innovation.
Finally, as this article notes, since CSIR is the central force driving R and D activities in the public sector in India, one hopes that CSIR’s focus on de-emphasizing the need for patent protection will translate into a more balanced IP strategy as opposed to a mindless reduction in the Council’s IP budget.