Courtesy of Dr. Ronald Phillips, U. of Minnesota

The granting of intellectual property rights is intended to stimulate innovation. The twin goals of encouraging innovation and promoting access to inventions require a balancing act between the scope of protection and limits on proprietary rights. In the United States and elsewhere, the government subsidizes research extensively.

For developing countries, access to new products, particularly drugs and seeds, is often a question of life and death. The market power inherent in intellectual property may restrict access by poorer consumers. Furthermore, coordination problems and the transaction costs involved in negotiating terms of access to patented innovations invariably raise the cost of producing and distributing inventions in developing nations.

One example is "golden rice," which is enhanced for beta carotene (provitamin A). It provides hope for alleviating the severe vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness in a half-million children every year. Extensive patenting has...

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