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Patently obvious

'True innovation leadership is about more than just the numbers of patents granted'. If patent protection can hold back medical progress, will our pharma firms ever learn to share?

If patent protection can hold back medical progress, will our pharma firms ever learn to share?

Can you 'do' technology? I was at a conference recently where a speaker gave a PowerPoint presentation with slides in yellow text on a pink background. He was followed closely by a woman with a set in green and blue. By the end of the conference I was going blind and needed a visit to Spec-Savers.

One week later, I witnessed a 'captain' of industry presenting 50 slides that had 22 bullet-points per page, using a type-face I recognised as Monotype Corsiva. In case you're not familiar, it's the sort of type you'd use to design a birthday card for your Granny.

Why is the industry so bad at using PowerPoint? The other, most popular, foul-up is to have some Wayne or Kylie in the marketing department make a template in the corporate 'theme'. The design will be in horrible colours and each slide will have either the mandatory sweeping curve on one of the corners, or a great lumpy logo that makes a run of text across the page impossible.

And, of course, there is the terminal bore who puts up a slide, turns towards the screen and proceeds to read every single word, verbatim. I don't know if I want to slash my wrists or throw a knife into his back.

On balance, the backward-facing slide-reader is marginally better than the idiot who is in love with PowerPoint and uses every fade, whirl, sound-effect and dissolve the software can manage. Spare me from the idiot whose slide changes are accompanied by the sound of screeching tyres.

I could go on. Clip art cowboys, the Queens of the 'witty' quotes and the Kings of the cartoons. No brains of their own and not smart enough to pinch decent stuff from other people.

Can't anyone stand up and talk anymore? Technology has a lot to answer for. I can remember the days when, in order to make a computer do anything, you had to write the code: the instructions to make it do anything.

There was an incomprehensible system called DOS that required a knowledge of syntax and abbreviations that flickered white symbols on a black screen. Next came the green screen! If you could do this stuff you were a real techno-god.

After that, Bill Gates moved out of the garage and gave us the graphical user interface, otherwise known as Windows. Since then its all gone barmy.

There was a story in the press the other day about a company in the Midlands that had to send its staff home because the e-mail system conked out. What's wrong with talking to people? A woman once told me that during an average day in her office she receives 150 e-mails; all internal!

What's the matter with these people? There is much about the US software and computing business that reminds me of pharma. The products are developed in the utmost secrecy, protected by patents, and sold to a captive market at silly prices - apparently so they can make enough money to go and invent some more.

Yet, the computing business might be growing up a lot quicker than we think. IBM announced in mid-January that it was planning to release some 500 of its software patents into the open development community; which means that software developers will be able to use the technologies without paying for a licence from the company.

IBM is quoted as saying: 'the step is a new era in how it deals with intellectual property', and promised further patents would be made freely available.

Traditionally, like pharmaceuticals, the technology business is about amassing patents. However, IBM senior VP, Dr John Kelly, has a different take. He says that 'true innovation leadership is about more than just the numbers of patents granted. It's about innovating to benefit customers, partners and society'. Interestingly, in 2004, IBM was granted 3,248 patents - more than any other firm in the US, including pharmacos.

Indeed, for each of the past 12 years, IBM has been granted more US patents than any other company. During that time, the company has received 25,772 US patents and apparently has more than 40,000 current patents.

In the past, IBM has supported the non-commercial computer operating system, Linux, although critics said this was done only as an attempt to stick it on Microsoft. However, IBM is now talking about encouraging others to release patents into what it neatly calls 'patent commons'.

As usual, the initiative has its nay-sayers and moaners. Florian Mueller, campaign manager of a group lobbying to prevent software patents becoming legal in the European Union, dismissed IBM's move as 'insubstantial'.

I guess it's true. We are talking about roughly 1 per cent of IBM's worldwide patent portfolio and the firm could file that number of patents again - in one month.

Still, it is an interesting development. Let's not forget, Phillips developed the tape cassette, declined to patent it, and 'gave' it to the music industry. Beta-max and VHS, slogged it out over video recording for years and slowed the development of the market.

If IBM's Kelly is right and 'true innovation leadership' is about `innovating to benefit customers, partners and society', where does that leave pharma?

How many patents, for stuff that never makes it, hide in pharma's drawers, vaults, and lawyers' offices? Could they not be put into the public domain, or 'patent commons', to see if anyone else has a missing bit of the jigsaw? It must be possible to take a leaf from the IBM book, for pharma to learn how to share.

At the next pharmaconference I expect to see your PowerPoint presentation on this very subject. On second thoughts, just stand up and talk!

The Author
Roy Lilley is a healthcare author and broadcaster. He has written several books and is well known for his sometimes controversial opinions

2nd September 2008

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