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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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April 16, 2010

Nutriset Responds

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Rémi Vallet, who gives his URL as Nutriset's site in France, responded at length to my call for engaging the moral dimension of intellectual property issues. He doesn't list himself as a spokesperson for the company nor give any title he might hold with them, so I can't actually say it's an official response, but he does raise points that I felt were worthy of bring up to the front page rather than being behind a comment link. (ETA: In a private email Vallet identifies himself as Responsable de la communication / Communications Manager for Nutriset so I think we can take his response as representing the company)

First, he corrects my misapprehension that Nutriset is not licensing its product. There is a (PDF) link to a description of a network of manufacturers and licensees, though I am somewhat confused as to what it means for the company to license its product in a country where it does not hold a patent. Still, that's a minor issue.

The heart of the question seems to be what qualifies as 'demand' or possibly what we might refer to as 'need.' From Vallet's point of view, the "demand is by far insufficient to meet the needs of the 20 to 26 millions children suffering from severe acute malnutrition." Here "demand" is synonymous with "people asking to buy our product" whereas someone else might say that these children's hunger constitutes a demand. Currently, according to Vallet, production of all RUTFs is about 60k metric tons, which doesn't come close to feeding those 20+ million children. The cost of taking up the full-scale project is certainly in the billions; Vallet quotes a World Bank estimate of USD 12.5 billion annually.

That scale of expenditure is clearly beyond the means of any but the largest corporations or charitable agencies. One might then conclude that Nutriset's patent is not a major obstacle in solving this problem - which would be true but almost wholly beside the point, insofar as one wants to engage with the question of whether patents on these sorts of products are in the general good or not. Nutriset's patent is just one example of a license that has moral implication.

The core notion of a patent is a grant of monopoly rights in exchange for some form of betterment, usually of the society or country that grants the patent monopoly. From a pragmatic point of view, as I've written before, we also need to consider the cost/risk/profit equation of the patent holders. Even though the US Constitution and other patent laws do not frame their grants in terms of profit, if we expect the market system to produce these life-saving products then we have to ask hard questions, such as "Is Nutriset's patent impeding production and distribution of life-saving foods?" and "If so, what is the proper remedy?" or "If not, to what extent are we comfortable allowing private commercial entities to claim exclusive rights?"

Vallet links to another PDF, a UN policy brief on "Scaling Up Nutrition" that, while laying out the problems and costs in fairly stark terms does not even mention the words "patent" or "intellectual property." I'm sure it's good that Nutriset endorses this framework, but that's necessarily going to help work through the tough questions around IP and life-saving.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


COMMENTS

1. Rémi Vallet on April 17, 2010 10:30 AM writes...

Dear Alex,
I'd like to apologize for not introducing myself properly in my previous comment, I am indeed Nutriset's Communications Manager.
I would also like to thank you for echoing my comments in your own post, it's very fair and allows for a real debate.
Best regards,
Rémi

Permalink to Comment

2. DrWex on April 22, 2010 8:30 AM writes...

Remi: My pleasure. Copyfight has always had strong voices in its writing and many of its commenters but we try to be fair and accurate. I welcome your further participation in our debate over the subjects of intellectual property and moral implications.

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