The Productivity Commission has released an issues paper for its inquiry into Intellectual Property Arrangements.

What it was asked to do

In his reference the then Treasurer directed the Productivity Commission to investigate:

The Australian Government wishes to ensure that the intellectual property system provides appropriate incentives for innovation, investment and the production of creative works while ensuring it does not unreasonably impede further innovation, competition, investment and access to goods and services. In undertaking the inquiry the Commission should:
1. examine the effect of the scope and duration of protection afforded by Australia’s intellectual property system on:
(a) research and innovation, including freedom to build on existing innovation;
(b) access to and cost of goods and services; and
(c) competition, trade and investment.
2. recommend changes to the current system that would improve the overall wellbeing of Australian society, which take account of Australia’s international trade obligations, including changes that would:
(a) encourage creativity, investment and new innovation by individuals, businesses and through collaboration while not unduly restricting access to technologies and creative works;
(b) allow access to an increased range of quality and value goods and services;
(c) provide greater certainty to individuals and businesses as to whether they are likely to infringe the intellectual property rights of others; and
(d) reduce the compliance and administrative costs associated with intellectual property rules.

Big job!

As a consequence, there are a “gazillion” questions set out in the Issues Paper. Here’s just a few:

Do IP rights encourage genuinely innovative and creative output that would not have otherwise occurred? If not, how could they be designed to do so? Do IP rights avoid rewarding innovation that would have occurred anyway? What evidence and criteria should be used to determine this? Are IP arrangements in other jurisdictions more effective in generating additional creative output?

To what extent does the IP system actively disseminate innovation and creative output? Does it do so sufficiently and what evidence is there of this? How could the diffusion ofknowledge-based assets be improved, without adversely impacting the incentive to create?

What, if any, evidence is there that parties are acting strategically to limit dissemination?

Do IP rights provide rewards that are proportional to the effort to generate IP? What evidence is there to show this? How should effort be measured? Is proportionality a desirable feature of an IP system? Are there particular elements of the current IP system that give rise to any disproportionality?

What are the relative costs and return to society for public, private and not-for-profit creators of IP? Does the public provision of IP act as a complement or substitute to other IP being generated? Are there any government programs or policies that prevent, raise or lower the costs of generating IP?

What are the merits and drawbacks of using other methods to secure a return on innovation (such as trade secrets/confidentiality agreements) relative to government afforded IP rights? What considerations do businesses/creators of IP make in order to select between options? How does Australia’s use of methods besides IP rights to protect IP compare to other jurisdictions? Why might such differences arise?

The Commission seeks submissions about how the parameters of the IP system came to be set, and on the basis of what evidence and analysis.

How were decisions to extend IP rights in the past (e.g. copyright) assessed? Is an evidence-based approach systematically used to assess changes to the IP system? How transparent have decisions to change the IP system been, including when it comes to legislation and international agreements? Is a stronger evidence base and greater transparency in the public interest, and if so, how should this be accomplished?

Don’t worry. Things get more specific from here. Some of the questions about patents will give you the flavour:

What evidence is there that patents have facilitated innovations that would not have otherwise occurred, or have imposed costs on the community, including by impeding follow-on innovation?

Are there aspects of Australia’s patent system that act as a barrier to innovation and growth? If so, how could these barriers be addressed?

Do patents provide rewards that are proportional to the effort to generate IP? What evidence is there to show this? How should effort be measured? How does the balance of costs and benefits from patent protection compare across sectors and innovations?

What scope is there to better leverage the economic benefits of patents, by taking steps to improve the diffusion of patent information?

Is the patent system sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes in technology and business practices?

Do the criteria for patentability in the Patents Act 1990 (Cwlth) help the patent system to meet its objectives? Would introducing economic criteria for patentability and/or gradually reducing the duration of patent protection substantially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the patent system?
….

There are numerouse questions in similar vein for the other IP rights and “data”.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all facinating questions. You, or professors and teams of doctoral candidates, could spend lifetimes trying to answer them.[1]

But here’s a thing. Are we really going to withdraw from the World Trade Organisation (with its obligations under the TRIPS Agreement)? Are we really going to pull out of the Australia – USA Free Trade Agreement? Or, given what the Prime Minister is reported to have said, does anyone seriously think we are not going to implement the TPP?

Hmmm. Maybe, at least as far as patents go, we could tell them that [28] of the majority’s ruling in Myriad has solved all the problems.[2] On the other hand, may be you are thinking this might be a good place to try and “fix” Myriad. In that case, you might like to read “Box 3 Beyond the theory” right up the front of the Issues Paper:

While discussions about IP rights are often theoretical, policy decisions about the balance between creators and consumers matter in real ways. Striking the wrong balance can impact the price and availability of books, music, cars, phones or even clothes.

The balance is particularly contentious in pharmaceuticals. Cases exist where patents have allowed pharmaceutical companies to charge what some consider to be unconscionably high prices for life-saving medicines. New compounds and biologic drugs, and their safety and efficacy, are no doubt expensive to develop and test and consumers are often willing to pay almost anything to access them (or the community as a whole through pharmaceutical subsidy schemes). Practices such as patent ‘evergreening’, seeking extended test data exclusivity for biologics, or paying competing firms not to produce generic medicines makes the balance of IP rights all the more contentious. (my emphasis)

Yes, once it has been “discovered”, the price of a new drug or treatment will be higher than if there was no patent. That is the point of the patent (or any other IP right): to allow the holder the opportunity to charge higher than marginal cost. How do you work out whether the price for that expensive drug is “unconscionably high”?


  1. As it happens, you have until 30 November 2015 to get your thoughts in.  ?
  2. Apart of course from those “innovation” patents.  ?