The Wall Street Journal has disclosed an interesting way that research-based and generic companies are settling patent disputes. Rather than duking it out in court, the research-based company agrees to let the generic company compete after a certain number of years. For example, if a drug’s patent has 10 years to run, but a generic company alleges that the patent is invalid, the inventing company will agree to let the generic manufacturer compete in 5 years. Is this collusion or co-operation that benefits the public? I’d say the latter. It’s certainly better than what was (allegedly) happening before.
Patents on prescription drugs are handled a little differently than patents on mousetraps, because they involve the FDA and not just the courts. If a generic competitor can prove that a patent is invalid, the FDA gives that first generic competitor the exclusive right to sell it’s version for 6 months, before it licenses other generic competitors’ copies. This gives a generic competitor with a strong case an incentive to attack the weak patent, which it would not if it had to share the spoils with other generic manufacturers.
A while back, it was alleged that these generic competitors would then negotiate payoffs from the research-based competitors, in return for which they would promise actually not to launch their versions for some time. Obviously, this simply transferred wealth from one company to another, with no benefit to public welfare. When this came out, I thought that a good solution would be to require a generic first mover who earned such a license to start shipping its products within a short time of the FDA approval, or lose its exclusivity.
This new situation is better, because it saves money otherwise spent on litigation, reducing costs to both generic and brand-name competitors. Although not immediately apparent, these savings result in lower drug prices. (I promise!) Of course, whether the generic would have been able to sell its medicine tomorrow, instead of 5 years from now, will never be known - nor whether it would have lost and been forced to wait for 10 years.
Although there are dazzlingly complex theoretical models of the welfare effects of patents, I’ve never been convinced that there is a satisfactory, empirically tested hypothesis demonstrating the optimal length of a patent. (Actually, I don’t think there ever will be. We don’t actually know how much money is spent on patent litigation, which would be necessary data for such a test.)
Nevertheless, the benefit of such negotiated agreements is that the parties with the best information decide the strength of the patent, not courts or government agencies. That, in itself, is a good sign that it improves public welfare.
Abboud, Sheila. 2006. “Branded Drugs Settling More Generic Suits,” Wall Street Journal, January 17, p. B1.