27 May 2010 hulten   » (Apprentice)

More free access to medicines

Pharmacy multinational Glaxo decided to offer free access to several potential malaria cures (that is, the patents). On the Wall Street Journal they call it a Linux Approach. Now certainly this is wrongly put in multiple ways. While using the term Linux operating system, they actually mean GNU/Linux. Furthermore they use the term open-source instead of free software. This kind of language is very common nowadays. If people know exactly what is meant by it, it might not be that relevant. People do know which software is meant when the term open-source or free software is used and because of the fact that the set of OSI approved licences are almost identical to the FSF approved licences, these software are mostly the same.

However, this kind of language neglects an important issue, namely that of freedom. The GNU system was originally created with the idea that users would have freedom to use, adapt and redistribute the software in anyway they feel like, and this still is the core idea of free software. This is why it is important to use the terms free software and GNU/Linux.

It seems that I digress... but I'm not. Also in the case of patents it is important that people have the freedom to derive other work from inventions. A temporary monopoly on an invention, with the intent to develop it for the good of society, is morally allowed under certain conditions. In this way inventors feel the urge (a financial stimulance) to produce more inventions and also to develop them and make them public (through a patent registration). But there are several things which should never be patented so that a single company has a monopoly on that patent. One type of such an invention is medicines.

But at this point it is allowed to patent medicines. As long there is no legislation against these kind of moral practices, we should do something to help make patents more free. But pharmaceutical companies want to make a profit. What should these companies do when they want to make money and be moral (give to society) as well? Glaxo did a first move to get back the respect of society. The medicines that they liberated (as it seems) can now also be used by other pharmaceutical companies for the development of derivative medicines, probably without making it free! In the Guardian article I cannot find anything which shows that they thought about this problem. Maybe they did and will use that only for other medicines (for instance against HIV). So, is there a solution for this problem? Yes, there is.

In the Wall Street Journal article not only the words Linux and open-source should not have been used, but it should also have made clear that copyright is something different from patents. Copyright is used for works of art, while patents are for inventions. But it did make me think about certain aspects of free software and free patents (read for both: Free as in free speach, not free beer). In free software we use the concept of copyleft, like in the GNU GPL. Now, such a thing should be used for medicines as well. Then such an invention may be freely used for anyone, as long as all derivative inventions are also free in precisely the same way. Also they must not be trade secrets and the license must be non-revokable.

As long as patents on medicines are allowed by governments, this is a good way to make available more and more medicines for low costs, so that everyone can pay for them. Also this kind of patent license can be used for all types of inventions, giving even more to society than their health. But let's start with that.

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