On Monday, the PTO requested comments on the use of the IP system to incentivize humanitarian technologies and licensing to benefit “impoverished population[s].” A grab-bag of concepts and ideas was set forth, with perhaps the most concrete (and marginally useful) being to fast-track ex parte reexamination of patents addressing humanitarian needs. The possibility of extending this fast-tracking to initial examination was also part of a list of questions/ideas/concepts in this area included with the request for comments.
Of course, the primal question is just what is a “humanitarian technology or use”? Almost Zen-like, the notice sets forth “four principles” for humanitarian use: subject matter, effectiveness, availability, and access. “Humanitarian research” comprises two principles: “significance” to the target population and “access,” which involves licensee terms. A vaccine to prevent a tropical disease or a cheap water purification system would seem to be self-evident candidates, but what about technologies related to simple, effective pregnancy prevention/termination or to bioengineered plants (or animals) that are more nutritious, pest resistant or can perform better in areas of drought? Not every interest group would agree that these are “humanitarian technologies.” This is a foray into deepest, darkest politics that the PTO may regret. (See 75 Fed. Reg. 57261 (Sept. 20, 2010).