Freeing up critical COVID-19 Intellectual Property

Dr Frank Tiezte and colleagues at the Institute for Manufacturing argue for decisive action to prevent Intellectual Property concerns from slowing much-needed product development.

Frank Tietze

All over the world, governments are scrambling for medical supplies and special equipment to ready their health services for the large-scale treatment of COVID-19. This sees companies working together in unusual ways: former competitors become collaborators, and companies across sectors restructure their production facilities to enter new markets and supply the most urgently needed products. However, the success of many of these companies depends on their patents and other intellectual property (IP) rights.

Wolfson Fellow Dr Frank Tietze and colleagues from his lab at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) recently published a working paper entitled Crisis-Critical Intellectual Property: Findings from the COVID-19 Pandemic. They state that companies’ reliance on IP rights is especially true in the domains of “organic chemistry, and the development of methodologies and drugs for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of viruses”— critical industries in the fight against COVID-19. According to Frank, the uncertainty that surrounds IP rights in these extraordinary circumstances might prevent some companies from pooling resources and information, or delaying the processes, for fear of ‘losing their assets’ to others.

Frank and his colleagues “identify a time-lag between the [COVID-19] outbreak and the materialisation of patent applications”, which together with the “large number of references to non-patent literature published after outbreaks” they take to be “an indication of the urgency of scientists to put the information in the public domain and make them accessible quickly to a wider audience”. In order for businesses to follow suit, they argue, there needs to be decisive action with regard to IP rights protection.

The authors suggest possible ways of mitigating these potentially dangerous delays of forging synergies and opening books — IP pledges among them. One such pledge is the Open Covid Pledge, published by Frank, together with eight other scientists, entrepreneurs, and lawyers including Mark Lemley, JD Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. It aims to “reduce IP associated risks among industrial stakeholders during a pandemic”. But how does it work?

Companies signing the document publicly “pledge to make [their] intellectual property available free of charge for use in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and minimizing the impact of the disease […] by, for example, posting a public statement to that effect on their website”. Then, organisations who signed the pledge implement it via a license detailing the terms and conditions under which their intellectual property is made available. Where the readily available Open COVID License does not accommodate the organisation’s specific circumstances, the authors of the pledge support a wide range of licenses, acknowledge that organisations “may choose to adopt their own license to accomplish the same goals”.

The efforts of Frank’s team are one of the many ways in which researchers at Wolfson are helping to combat the effects of COVID-19 pandemic. "Initially, when the pandemic started to unfold, I was not very sure how my research might be relevant to it”, Frank says. Yet then, realising “that licensing challenges are of particular relevance that could potentially delay the mobilisation of all resources needed to fight this pandemic […] kickstarted our research […] with more to come".

Dr Frank Tietze is a Fellow and Director of Studies at Wolfson College. He is a University Lecturer in Technology and Innovation Management at the Department of Engineering’s Institute for Manufacturing, where he leads the Innovation and Intellectual Property Management (IIPM) Lab, which is part of the Centre for Technology Management.