IP Australia has issued an Issues Paper on the proposed amendments to the Patents Act:

(1) to insert an “objects” clause; and

(2) to exclude from patentable subject matter inventions which it would be “offensive” to commercially exploit.

These plans arise out of a recommendations made by ACIP which the Government announced it accepted. The consultation now is on the wording to implement those policies.

An objects clause

The consultation paper proposes 2 alternative “objects” clauses:

Option 1

…. the purpose of the legislation as being to provide an environment that promotes Australia’s national interest and enhances the well-being of Australians by balancing the competing interests of patent rights holders, the users of technology, and Australian society as a whole.

Option 2

the purpose of the patent system is to provide an environment that enhances the well-being of Australians by promoting innovation and the dissemination of technology and by balancing the competing interests of patent applicants and patent owners, the users of technology, and Australian society as a whole.

Now, one could very well wonder what possible help either of these statements might give a court if they were enacted. The consultation paper even notes that the Parliamentary Draftsman is rather ambivalent about the value of objects clauses in general:

Some objects provisions give a general understanding of the purpose of the legislation…Other objects provisions set out the general aim or principles that help the reader to interpret the detailed provisions of the legislation.

The first option is what ACIP proposed. ACIP considered its proposal a simplified version of the Objects identified in art. 7 of TRIPS:

The protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights should contribute to the promotion of technological innovation and to the transfer and dissemination of technology, to the mutual advantage of producers and users of technological knowledge and in a manner conducive to social and economic welfare, and to a balance of rights and obligations.

The consultation paper thought that Option 1 does not sufficiently recognise the economic and social welfare concerns of patent law and did not sufficiently recognise the interests of patent applicants as well as patent owners (formerly known in Olde English as patentees). As the consultation paper explains:

The economic goals of the patent system are to promote economic growth, trade and investment by encouraging innovation and the dissemination of knowledge and technology.

The patent system encourages innovation by giving patentees a period of market exclusivity in which to recoup their development costs through commercialisation of their inventions. In exchange, patentees are required to disclose the details of their inventions to the public. The patent system contributes to social welfare by providing Australians with access to new technologies and developments that otherwise would not have occurred and that improve our quality of life (for example new pharmaceuticals and medical technologies and improvements to safety and waste management technologies).

However, the patent system will only meet its economic goals if the positive effects of the patent system in stimulating investment in innovation and providing society with access to new technology are balanced against the potential negative effects of patents restricting access to follow-on innovation and increasing costs, and so restricting supply of new patented technologies.

This is better, at least the first 2 paragraphs (if one bears in mind that economists – to the extent they accept the role of patents – think of the market exclusivity as providing an incentive rather than a “reward”). The third paragraph is rather more ambivalent.The danger the third paragraph raises is that it could be used as a basis for excluding something from patentability because someone might use the patent to raise prices or the other evils identified. But, while there are some provisions in the Patents Act that address, or attempt to deal with, these issues, in many respects they seem more properly the territory of (take a deep breath) competition law.

Offensive commercial exploitation

What the consultation proposes is a new exclusion to be added to s 18:

…  for an invention the commercial exploitation which would be wholly offensive to the ordinary reasonable and fully informed member of the Australian public.

Wholly offensive?

Apparently, the test of the ordinary reasonable and fully informed member of the Australian public is intended to ensure that the exclusion is “applied in a consistent, predictable and neutral manner”. However, it is also proposed to assist the Commissioner by explicitly empowering the Commissioner  in his or her discretion to seek “non-binding” advice on ethical matters.

What seems to trigger the exclusion commercial exploitation in an wholly offensive way rather than at the specific subject matter itself. At what point is the appropriateness of the commercial exploitation determined? Will it be enough that the invention could be exploited in an wholly offensive way? The BRCA controversy erupted when Myriad announced it was going to start charging licence fees for its products. Would the ordinary, reasonable and fully informed Australian have considered its patent wholly offensive before that announcement? This rather suggests that the problem falls within the second type issue identified by ACIP: about how the patent is used, are better dealt with through Crown Use and other compulsory licence arrangements.

 

If you have views you want to inflict, they should be submitted by 27 September 2013.

Find the issues paper here.