Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 12: The international patent system and the ethics of global justice
It is hard to overlook the huge difference in attitudes towards patents that prevailed during the first few decades after the Second World War and during the closing decades of the millennium. Back then ‘intellectual property’ had not yet become a household term. When in 1955 Jonas Salk was asked on national U.S. television who owned the patent on the newly developed polio vaccine, he famously answered: ‘Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ (Smith, 1990: 338). Nowadays, however, the website of the Californian research institute that bears his name, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, speaks a quite different language: ‘Our mission is to maximize patent protection for Institute technology and facilitate the transfer of such technology to the private sector.’ The Salk Institute also routinely files patents on new vaccines (for example, U.S. patent 4738846 on a vaccine for vesicular stomatitis virus). So it turns out that the sun can be patented after all. A different attitude toward ‘intellectual property’ also shines through in President Truman’s Point Four programme for aid to developing countries, which he announced in his inaugural address of January 1949: … we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease.
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