It’s an old trend. Indian policymaker meets foreign idea; policymaker falls in love with the idea and brings it to India, only to find that all matches aren’t made in heaven. Debates over capital account liberalization in a country that can’t contain its fiscal deficit or talk of applying human development indicators in a land where poverty screams for high growth sometimes suggest this trend. Now, so does patent law.
India’s intellectual property rights (IPR) regime can barely be improved by blindly transplanting a three-decade-old US law. But as Mint reported on Monday, that’s the case with an IPR Bill the government introduced in the Rajya Sabha in January, and that it will attempt to pass in the December session.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The Bill, dubbed India’s Bayh-Dole Act after the US law it closely resembles, allows research institutes to protect their work. Bayh-Dole’s 1980 passage in the US proved a landmark for commercializing IPR. China passed its version in 2007. Not to be left behind, the government hurried this Bill, under the impression that universities could then sell their research and become financially self-reliant.
The Bill provides a scientist or institute default ownership over government-funded research. Yet, India’s 1970 Patents Act, unlike US law before 1980, already provides for it. The problem in India isn’t that there aren’t sufficient rights for researchers; rather, researchers don’t appear to capitalize on them. The Council of Scientific and Indian Research (CISR), the largest research body, has around 4,700 patents to its name, only 10% of which have been transferred into commercial licences.
First, India lacks the mechanisms that enable commercial usage of patents. For instance, there are few technology transfer organizations—official bodies within universities that can bridge academia and business.
Second, India’s environment hasn’t matured. Even before Bayh-Dole was enacted, there existed a nexus between companies and universities in the US— the law just filled in the gaps. In India, the nexus is nascent: Domestic industries can’t always absorb academic work and researchers can’t always commercialize patents.
Third, research in India—75% government-funded—suffers from bad direction. If CISR’s track record is a guide, funds flow into projects that yield useless patents. The Bill doesn’t address this; if anything, it forces researchers to declare useless patents,?too, by threat of penalty.
Without the prerequisite environment, no amount of legislation, inspired from whichever part of the world, can help. A foreign idea can’t always solve a uniquely Indian problem.
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