Nowhere is this debate felt more keenly than in pharma, when people's lives are at stake.
The theory goes: by allowing people involved in researching and developing new products and processes to be financially rewarded for a certain period of time through the exclusivity of patent protection, that incentivises them to spend time and money in doing so. Otherwise, why would they bother and wouldn't we be poorer for it as a society?
Patent protection is only available for novel inventions. The length of patent protection is a maximum of 20 years usually, but given the length of time that it takes novel medicines to be fully developed, tested, licensed and brought to the market, it's closer to half of that time (even after getting an extended period through supplementary protection certificates). But once that patent protection expires, generics companies can step in and offer the medicines at a fraction of the price. We have seen the benefits to the NHS in the last few years after the 'patent cliff' saw the expiry of patents for a number of blockbuster pharma products.
At the Labour Party Conference recently, a proposal was announced that - if enacted - would force pharma companies with patent protection to hand over their patents and data to the government, and allow a new government-funded generics company to produce the products at a fraction of the cost for the NHS.
True, even if the government can get such a generics company off the ground efficiently, that could save money in the short-term and make more drugs available to patients, but there are two massive downsides, which would make things worse for patients, the NHS, jobs and the UK pharma industry in the long run.
As we have seen with the antibiotics crisis - where concerns have been raised of tens of millions of people dying unnecessarily through loss of effectiveness of antibiotics by 2050 unless pharma is incentivised to invest in developing new antibiotics - so if this was to be introduced in the UK the effects would be on a much bigger scale. Why would pharma R&D be incentivised to develop new medicines if they did not have the financial incentive? And this would lead to a culling of the pharma industry in the UK, a country that is currently one of the leaders in the world in pharma R&D, inevitably leading to the loss of thousands of jobs.
Who is to say whether the current balance is exactly the right one? In some instances, some may argue that the profits and rewards are too great, while there are other instances where the incentives are not great enough to lead to much-needed new drugs (as in the antibiotics case). But to remove the incentive altogether would only lead to a disaster downward spiral for industry, jobs and patients.