Patently obvious

Patents: good or bad?

Patents for pharmaceuticals raise strong feelings. For some, they deny drugs to needy populations; for industry, they are an essential way to recoup the huge sums invested in new medicines. When awarded, patents allow companies to develop and sell a drug for 20 years without competition (although the first ten years is likely to be eaten up by the drug development process).

After that period, competitors can start making and marketing the same compounds (known as generics). The patent system is designed to encourage innovation. Without protection, unscrupulous manufacturers could wait for companies to do all the hard work of developing a new drug, then reap the rewards of making and selling it. To be awarded a patent, a company must show that their product is novel, involves an inventive step, is non-obvious and is useful.

On the other hand, with a monopoly, pharmaceutical companies can control the pricing of new drugs. This can put drugs out of the reach of resource-poor countries. Price is not always the only obstacle to the supply of drugs in such countries, however; the infrastructure needed to distribute medicines may not exist, for example.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Medicine, Biotechnology and engineering
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development