The recently released national IPR policy does a reasonably good job of striking a balance between public interest on the one hand and the need to protect and incentivise innovation on the other. However, the backdrop is not to be overlooked: the developed world, particularly the US, has put India’s IPR laws under ‘watch’ for not protecting innovation and discouraging research and investment. Mega trade blocs are pushing a WTO-plus agenda which does not allow for domestic elbow room in the case of IPR. Yet, the policy has by and large maintained the existing sui generis position by asserting that India’s patent laws are fine because they are benchmarked to WTO rules. By saying so, it has, in effect, ruled out changes in Section 3 (d) of the Patents Act, which disallows the extension of a patent on the basis of ‘frivolous’ changes — staving off global pressure on this score. This also implies that compulsory licensing, or the right to waive patents in the event of a health emergency, will stay. Yet, global observers have been tactfully assured that our IPR laws will evolve over time, thereby seeking to address India’s obdurate image on the world stage.

That said, there can be no denying the need for improvements in the IPR ecosystem to protect the returns of genuine innovators. The policy acknowledges systemic flaws and moots governance changes, which will boost ‘ease of doing business’ and spur research. A staggering 2.4 lakh and 5.4 lakh patents and trademark applications, respectively, were pending as on February 1. The Centre’s move to reduce the processing time for patents to18 months (against over five years at present) is a welcome initiative. Processing time for trade mark applications also needs to reduce sharply. Apart from improving the capacity of patents offices, the move to unify the administration of all aspects of IPR — patents, copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs, geographical indications, plant varieties, integrated circuits and biodiversity — under the department of industrial policy and promotion is a step in the right direction. Allied to this is the effort to remove inconsistencies between sector-specific laws. The policy has emphasised codification of traditional knowledge to protect the communities concerned.

Yet, it misses the big picture. It sees IPRs as an end in itself, assuming a simplistic, linear link between intellectual property and creativity. It is all very well to encourage ‘commercialisation’ of IPRs as they add to the intangible wealth of a business concern, but intellectual property is meant to be used, not hoarded. The role of patent trolls worldwide is instructive here. Commercialised IPRs alone cannot spur creativity, given the current state of science education. An IPR-driven milieu should also seek to create a level playing field between big and small players, providing the latter with access to both funds and infrastructure. Technological progress has historically occurred as a product of sweeping social change. Guaranteeing intellectual property rights alone may not be enough.