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Publicity stunts designed to promote public reflection of complex but pressing issues — such as the impact of patents laws on developing countries — should, if well-informed, not be dismissed as quickly as some are often tempted to do

This week, a British-based campaign group, ActionAid, plans to apply for a patent on "the great British chip", the deep-fried and frequently soggy pencil of potato that appears to be the country's favourite cooked vegetable. More precisely, the group will seek patent protection for the idea of a 'ready-salted chip', claiming that the novelty required of their invention by patent law lies in the idea of adding salt to the chip after it is cooked.

ActionAid argues that, by combining two naturally occurring substances (i.e. salt and potato), they are doing little more than companies that combine other biological ingredients — including animal and plant genes — into new products, and have successfully patented the results. It argues that its patent application is intended to demonstrate what it calls the "outrageousness" of patent laws in a way that the public can understand, as it could directly effect their eating habits (requiring chip-shop owners, in particular, to pay a licence for providing salted chips to their customers). "For British chip lovers, this may only affect the way they like to eat their chips but, for people in the developing world, patents on food can be a threat to their survival," says ActionAid.

It will be tempting for government officials and industry spokesmen to dismiss the protest as little more than a publicity stunt (making much in the process, for example, of the current practice of adding salt to cooked chips as a 'prior art' that invalidates the patent application). A similar reaction has already greeted a separate campaign, launched last week by 250 non-government organisations from 50 countries, which seeks to ban patents on all plant and animal life (including human and animal genes) on these grounds that the gene pool should be considered a 'shared legacy', not private property (See 'Campaigners demand end to patents on life').

Such critics are partially correct. The major goal of each campaign lies not in its stated objective, but in generating a maximum amount of public attention. ActionAid's campaign is not aimed at generating money for the organisation, but at raising the public's awareness of the impact of patent laws, both in developed and developing nations. Similarly the bid for a treaty banning patents on life forms is doomed to failure in a world where much of the economic power of pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations currently lies in the control that they are already able to exercise, through the patent systems, over new products. But key proponents of this campaign, too, admit that their real target is public sentiment.

Is that such a bad thing? One of the difficulties of changing the current patent system is that is has a powerful and persuasive logic behind it. This is the idea that no-one (whether an individual or a corporation) is likely to invest substantial resources in developing a new product unless they are rewarded for their efforts. The patent system does this by allowing them a monopoly on the product for a limited period of time. In principle, no-one has come up with a better reward system; as has often been said about democracy itself, it may be a flawed system, but it's the best one around at present.

Yet the flaws are significant, and becoming increasingly so. Some can be addressed by practical initiatives. For example, a new body, called Management of Intellectual Property In Health R&D (MIHR), is to be set up later this year, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, to help researchers in developing countries find their way around the complexities of intellectual property laws (See 'Developing world gets patent aid'). By giving training and free legal advice to governments and researchers in poorer countries, the new organisation will address one obvious shortcoming: the fact that these complexities, and the cost of the professional advice needed to address them, tend to bias the international patent system, however egalitarian in principle, towards the interests of the rich nations.

Other initiatives will, hopefully, emerge from the deliberations of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, an independent, international body set up last year by the British government. One of the main tasks facing the commission is to come up with proposals that are both imaginative and practical. A difficult task in any circumstance, one might say. But one made doubly so by the massive sums of money, and the associated political interests, that are involved.

Twenty years ago, virtually nothing was heard about patents and intellectual property in public campaigns and debates about development. Two issues have changed that. One has been the fact of globalisation (seen most clearly in the way that patents have become a major bone of contention within the World Trade Organisation, particularly through the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as TRIPS). The second has been the genetic engineering revolution, which has allowed us to transform biological mechanisms into processes that can the readily covered by patent laws.

The complexities of both the economics and the science involved are daunting. But the politics has become a pressing issue for all of us. In such circumstances, anything that can help make the issues more readily understandable — provided that it is well-informed — is to be welcomed. MIHR has chosen one strategy. Our own contribution has been to create a 'dossier' on this site that seeks to provide an information resource for those keen to increase their understanding of the political and scientific issues involved.

Others, such as ActionAid, deliberately over-dramatise the issue in order to provoke public reflection. Those fully aware of the complexities may, with some reason, complain of the oversimplification. But they cannot disagree that the way that the system currently operates can produce legitimate patents on processes that, when looked at in terms of common sense. are no less outrageous than a patent on the 'ready-salted' chip. Nor can they disgree with the importance of the debate that even publicity stunts can help to generate.

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