Really, Industry Sponsored IP Conferences are No Big Deal

Image from here

Image from here

There’s an old saying: Blessed is he who manages to provoke a tenured American law professor to write out a full post in response to a mere four sentences. Jokes aside, I’m glad that Srividhya took out the time to respond to my passing reference to industry sponsored conferences in my earlier post.

Let me begin with what I meant by “mid-wiving” of conferences by universities. When industries sponsors centres or conferences in academic institutions, there is obviously an expectation that the funds will be used in the area of study of interest to the industry. The entire point of giving that money to a university rather than an industry body is to ensure that the research or conferences are conducted at an arm’s length with a degree of independence under the umbrella of a university which has its own in-built mechanisms to ensure academic independence. In the context of a conference, a university should ideally ensure that it presents views from both sides of the fence, regardless of the funder. While I don’t know the type of conferences that Srividhya has been attending, let me narrate my own experiences.

In 2008, the National Law School of India University had organised a conference on IP. The conference was largely possible due to funding from OPPI (a fact that was advertised on the conference banner and brochures) which is an industry body for innovator pharmaceutical companies. Patents and access to medicines was one of the topics at debate and the activist community was present in full strength at the conference – OPPI on the other hand didn’t even send anybody for the conference. More recently, a few months ago, I attended the NLU-Delhi conference on SEPs organised by their new competition and IP law centre which is the recipient of a generous Qualcomm grant. I was at the conference as an audience member and I sat through for all the sessions – each session had speakers providing different and opposing viewpoints. So clearly, it is possible for Indian universities to organise conferences which provide both viewpoints regardless of who is funding them. In fact, universities are worried enough about their reputations to ensure they go out of their way to ensure balanced debates at these conferences. To expect the industry to fund research or conferences specifically targeted against their own interests is even more absurd than the Global Intellectual Property Congress prohibiting OUP from hosting a stall featuring the scholarship of the speakers at the conference.

Regarding Srividya’s point on Justice Bhandari’s recusal where she says “I think, it is a perfectly reasonable to expect the judge to recuse himself from cases involving the industry in question as a show of propriety”. One cannot expect judges to adhere to some fictional code of conduct manufactured in the imagination of activists and academics. As I’ve discussed in detail on this blog earlier, there is no code of conduct or law which prevents Indian judges from attending such conferences. To add a further fact to my earlier post – when Roche appealed to the Supreme Court against the Division Bench’s order in the first Tarceva patent infringement case against Cipla, it was Justice Bhandari who dismissed the appeal – no evidence of bias in favour of Big Pharma.

Justice Bhandari’s recusal has opened the door to even sillier mud-slinging in the future. Let me provide a hypothetical example of Justice Ravindra Bhat, one of the finest judges in this country. Justice Bhat is a regular participant at the NLU-D and Jindal SEP conferences. Going by the precedent of Justice Bhandari’s recusal, should it be permissible for the Indian defendants in the ongoing SEP litigation to publicly embarrass Justice Bhat into a recusal because he attended conferences at universities which were sponsored by the SEP owning industry? Where are you going to draw the line when it comes to such mud-slinging? They started with protesting GWU’s conferences, they moved on to opposing IPOA’s visits, Ericsson sponsored conferences and eventually blocking OUP’s book stalls from IP conferences. Where is this list going to end?

As for the examples of judicial recusals provided by Srividhya, they are simply disingenuous – Judge Rader clearly violated a written rule of judicial conduct for American judges – the code of conduct for United States Judges clearly states that judges should not lend the prestige of judicial office to further private interests of either the judge or other persons. As for Chief Justice Roberts recusing himself for the Labcorp case – he never officially gave a reason – I’m not sure how Srividhya deduced his reason for recusal. Also, let’s not forget that even when American NGOs protested against the GWU conference, they never made an issue of Judge Rader attending the GWU conferences year after year despite the conference being funded by the industry. So why then does Srividhya preach a different ethical standard for Indian judges?

Last but not least, let us not forget the issue of how industry funding gives underpaid, overworked Indian legal academics opportunities to conference and network with both Indian and foreign academics. It is all well for foreign academics to preach to Indians about ethics but the bottom line is that even the national law universities have abysmal research budgets. I don’t see international organisations like the WTO or WIPO funding any credible IP research by Indian academics. If industry funding provides Indian IP scholars with more opportunities to travel to conferences and organise conferences within India so be it. They don’t need to wait for a stamp of approval from American academics.

In India today, it is very simple and easy to destroy reputations of individuals and institutions. One open letter mentioning words like ‘bias’, ‘lack of transparency’ and ‘unethical’ is enough to cause irreparable damage – truth be damned. We could instead have an honest debate based on academic scholarship and reason but that of course requires hard work.

Prashant Reddy

T. Prashant Reddy graduated from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, with a B.A.LLB (Hons.) degree in 2008. He later graduated with a LLM degree (Law, Science & Technology) from the Stanford Law School in 2013. Prashant has worked with law firms in Delhi and in academia in India and Singapore. He is also co-author of the book Create, Copy, Disrupt: India's Intellectual Property Dilemmas (OUP).


  1. Shreya

    This ongoing debate throws up several interesting points to think about (questions of judicial propriety, lack of research depth in India and reasons therefore etc are pertinent concerns at all times), and I’m glad for this discussion. However, I think Mr. Reddy could adopt a less aggressive tone and be less snide. But “that of course requires hard work.”

  2. Harshavardhan Ganesan

    Hey Prashant!

    At the outset, it is great that SpicyIP is covering these IP boxing rounds on Industry sponsored conferences,it really adds a different dimension to the blog apart from the daily fare that readers are used to.

    Prashant, a couple of questions:

    1. “While I don’t know the type of conferences that Srividhya has been attending, let me narrate my own experiences.”

    I understand that the very nature of this debate requires arguments to be made that are anecdotal in nature. However, don’t you think it is possible that the experiences/situations you faced in conferences were the outlier and not the norm? I can imagine IP conferences funded by the industry, wherein there is a lack of proportional representation, or the representation of the counterview is either lacking, or merely nominal. Most importantly, since industries fund these conferences, despite the presence of universities, don’t you think it is possible that the industries hold enough sway to to pick a “lightweight” opposition? Are the scenarios I am raising theoretical? Yes. Are they possible though? Maybe. Was wondering how you think these issues can be countered, apart from utopic self-regulation.

    2. I definitely agree that industry funding has played a huge role in terms of uplifting demeaned Indian academia. The knowledge pool that exists, needs to be tapped into by receiving funding, and industries perform that function admirably. That being said however, the sway and power of the industries are quite potent and directed. I doubt a pharma company would sponsor an academic researching about increasing access to medicine, a point you attest to yourself. Therefore a view that, ‘Hey atleast some Indian academics are getting funding’, fails to past muster. If money directs speech, then Indian academia will be stuck in a rut, whereby only one type of speech prevails, and that is highly dangerous for a diverse, and dynamic field like Intellectual Property.

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Prashant Reddy

      Hi Harshavardhan,

      1. The nature of the debate doesn’t have to be anectodal. As I’ve mentioned in my post, the safety valve here is the credibility and reputation of the Universisty. An academic conference is judged by its ability to present both sides of the debate. The decision on the speaker list rests with the university and not industry. If a conference appears to be too one-sided, the university’s credibility is at risk. That’s enough of a safeguard.

      2. I’m not sure why you use the word ‘demeaned Indian academia’ – seems a bit insulting no? And further, my post was limited to conferences – you are talking about research. Conferences are important from an academic career because like any other profession it over opportunities to network. They are however very expensive to organise, especially if you are looking at bringing in foreign speakers. And as I explained earlier industry funding may at the most dictate the type of conference but not the content – so over the last year we’ve seen a lot of SEP conferences which is okay as long as the conferences are conducted by the University in an impartial manner. Even if industry were to fund research I don’t see the problem – once the results are published its open to anybody to review and criticise it.

      There is nothing dangerous about this unless you’re looking for a reason to make it dangerous.


  3. Mathew

    “The entire point of giving that money to a university rather than an industry body is to ensure that the research or conferences are conducted at an arm’s length with a degree of independence under the umbrella of a university which has its own in-built mechanisms to ensure academic independence.”

    I would imagine that the purpose of giving that money to a University is to manufacture research and consent. No? Or do we still believe in god?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.