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Out of Order: Patently absurd
May 2012
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author

The commentary you are reading right now, as well as any other article you've read in this issue of ddn, is protected by a copyright owned by the publishers. My understanding is that you cannot reproduce this article in part or in whole without permission of those same publishers. (They're really nice guys, however, so I'm sure they won't hassle you if you want to give ddn credit. Please ask, though.)
According to some people, I have just committed an atrocity that stifles creativity and hoards all of the "glory" (??) for my publishers and myself. It is their contention that copyright law keeps them from using similar words in a similar context to spread a similar message and forces them to fly into the uncharted territory of the novel, unique, different. How unfair is that?
Oh, wait. Did I say copyright? I meant patent.
And I didn't mean creativity. I meant innovation.  
Let me state this as bluntly as possible: Patents do not stifle innovation any more than copyright laws stifle creativity. In a similar vein, homeownership does not stifle homelessness, and marriage does not necessarily stifle infidelity, but I'm off-point.
Patents ensure the people who put in the time and effort to achieve success are rewarded for that effort, and thereby encourage them to go back to the chalkboard to develop the next big thing. But just as importantly, patents prevent others from reaping all of the benefits of someone else's endeavors without doing any of the hard/expensive groundwork. Perhaps I'm being a little strenuous in my definitions, but I don't see how synthesizing the same active ingredient into roughly the same formulation is considered innovation. Yes, you can argue that they can do it less expensively, but of course it's less expensive. They didn't have to pay all the initial start-up costs.  
You want to be innovative? Come up with a new mode of action. Reduce the side effect profile or increase tolerability. Treat the disease earlier in its pathology, or prevent the condition from starting altogether. I appreciate that's not easy. It's not supposed to be … lest it not be innovative.  
For all the buzz in the marketplace over the word innovation and the concept of a company being innovative (who ever describes themselves as "same-old, same-old?"), few want to pay the price for innovation.  
Or more accurately, few want to take a risk on innovation—real innovation. The primary thing that stifles innovation is fear. Innovation is scary. It's supposed to be. If you're comfortable with your achievement, it's probably not all that innovative. That's the whole point. Fear is the killer.  
For medical researchers in academia, it's the fear of moving outside of the accepted sphere of knowledge; fear of not getting their next grant, which is often reviewed by people with a strong reason to support the accepted way of doing things.
For companies, it is the fear of spending all of that time and money on something that may ultimately fail. The exceptions to this are the maverick startups that have little to lose and end up being fodder for industry giants whose pipelines dry up (how ironic). For medical practitioners, it is the fear of admitting they don't have all of the answers and taking the time to learn something outside of the status quo—a status quo that many of them helped establish. The exceptions include oncologists who still sit at the forefront of exploratory and anecdotal medicine —people who essentially initiate a clinical trial with each new patient.  
For consumers and patient communities, it is the fear of being guinea pigs for new therapeutic concepts, mistaking novel for untested. Again, the prototypical exception is found in cancer patients who can be desperate enough to try anything that offers them a chance.  
But probably the biggest source of fear that stifles innovation is the corporate investor, the stockholder who demands his or her promised 5-, 10-, 15- or 20-percent return on investment. Fail in your attempt to be innovative, and watch your investment well dry up. Hell, even whisper that you 're thinking about—let alone going to try—something new, and watch people move their money to a supposedly safer haven.  
Now if somebody can come up with a cure for the shortsightedness of the markets, that would be truly innovative. In the meantime, pass me the tried-and-true anti-anxiety meds and let me slide back into my rut where I may not be happy, but at least I'm comfortable.
P.S. I probably read the title to this commentary somewhere else, so I'd like to apologize to the original author and hope he or she doesn't sue me for copyright infringement.
Formerly the executive editor of ddn, Willis has worked at both ends of the pharmaceutical industry, from basic research to marketing, and has written about biomedical science for almost two decades.



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