Compulsory licensing of patents

The Assistant Treasurer has referred the operation of the compulsory licence regime within the Patents Act 1990 to the Productivity Commission for review.

At present, sections 133 to 140 of the Patents Act provide for applications to be made to the Federal Court for a compulsory licence to work a patent where

(i) the applicant has tried for a reasonable period, but without success, to obtain from the patentee an authorisation to work the invention on reasonable terms and conditions;

>(ii) the reasonable requirements of the public with respect to the patented invention have not been satisfied;

(iii) the patentee has given no satisfactory reason for failing to exploit the patent; or

the patentee has contravened the anti-competitive provisions in Part IV of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

The Terms of Reference require the Productivity Commission to:

  1. Assess whether the current Australian provisions can be invoked efficiently and effectively to deal with circumstances where reasonable requirements of the public are not being met or where the patentee engages in anti-competitive conduct. This includes, but is not limited to, consideration of concerns that gene patents may hinder access to affordable healthcare, including access to medical advice that relies on the identification and use of gene sequences related to human health and disease.
  2. Advise on the frequency, and impact, of the issue of compulsory licences in comparable markets and the common features in such compulsory licenses.
  3. Recommend any measures that may be required to efficiently and effectively exercise these safeguard provisions and invoke their use in a manner consistent with Australia’s international obligations, without limiting access to overseas technologies, technology transfer, research and development investments or substantially reducing the patent incentive for innovation.
  4. Recommend any alternative mechanisms deemed necessary to ensure that the balance between incentives to innovate and access to technology best reflect objectives of ensuring reasonable access to health care solutions, maximising economic growth and growing the Australian manufacturing industry.
  5. Recommend measures to raise awareness of these provisions and their purpose, including the specific challenges of raising awareness among small businesses and the healthcare sector.

The genesis of the reference seems to lie in the uproar resulting from the attempt to charge licence fees for diagnostic kits based on the BRCA 1 patent and, more recently, the smartphone wars.[1]

A number of submissions to the Senate’s Community Affairs committee claimed that there were a range of deficiencies with the present scheme. In addition, IP Australia told the Senate’s Community Affairs committee when it was investigating these (and other matters) that, in the 100+ years our law has had such provision, there had been only 3 applications for the grant of a compulsory licence. The ALRC had also recommended that the scope of ‘reasonable requirements of the public’ be clarified (the recommendation to make the competition test a basis for licensing having been sort of implemented when s 133(2)(b) was inserted in 2006.

The Terms of Reference also note that Australia is a net importer of technology with, for example, only 1,178 (or 8%) of the 14,557 patents granted in 2010 being granted to Australian residents.

The TRIPS Agreement allows us to do something in this sphere. See art. 40 and art. 27.2 even goes so far as to allow us to exclude from patentability things necessary to protect ordre public “including to protect human … life or health”.

Of course, the multi-million dollar question in all of this is what that elastic word “reasonable” might mean?

Do also note paragraph 4 of art. 40, which gives a country that is concerned its nationals are being prejudiced by the exercise of such rights an “opportunity for consultations”. Of course, such a country might just move straight to the dispute resolution processes. I wonder how a more liberal use of compulsory licensing, or the threat of it, would play with those of our trading partners who consider compulsory licences of patents to be anathema?

According to the Productivity Commission’s website:

1 an issues paper will be released in August;
2 initial submissions will be due by 28 September;
3 there will be a draft report released in early December;
4 public hearings will be held in February 2013; and
5 the final report will be delivered to the government on 29 March 2013.


  1. According to the Press Release amongst other things: “Of concern to government is a perception that patents over genetic technologies, or a perceived lack of licences to use these patents in Australia, unreasonably restricts or delays patient access to medical advice based on the latest diagnostic tests. Other areas of sensitivity include climate change mitigation, food security and alternative energy technologies, and technical standards essential patents (for example, in telecommunication technologies).”  ?

Clip to Evernote

Tags: , , , , , , ,