Innovation, competition and IP in developing countries: convergence or customization?
Advance africanantitrust.com publication of working paper
By: Sofia Ranchordás (Tilburg Univ. Law School)
new multi-part series on Innovation & Antitrust
Innovation: a path to long-term economic growth,hope for economic recovery, and a vital opportunity for economies in developing countries. Innovation is the Holy Grail we would all like drink from. Individuals dedicate their lives to its pursuit, governments invest significant amounts of money in R&D, but despite decades of research on ‘the wealth of nations’, we remain with a poor perception of innovation as a ‘complex and mysterious phenomenon’ that should be stimulated, although no one knows very well how.
Government intervention in itself is insufficient and it might rather have costly results, if incorrectly targeted. This is particularly true when it comes to the inevitable relationship between legal conditions and innovation since the lack of an effective legal framework is in the poorest countries the main obstacle to innovation and consequently to economic growth. In this context, during many years, law was simply told to stay away and admire it from a distance to avoid impeding innovation. However, beyond laboratories, laborious inventions and serendipitous discoveries, law can play a greater role than a mere walk-on in the ‘innovation film’. In fact, law can act as a ‘brakeman’ or ‘a driver’ of innovation. Competition and IP law have been competing for the supporting role of ‘drivers of innovation’. Here this ‘innovation film’ does not take place in the EU or in the US, but in developing countries trying to promote domestic innovation while adopting competition laws and being forced to respect IP rights that incentivize innovation in the Western world. In such context, and before the audition starts, five questions must be posed: (i) What is innovation and what type of innovation do governments aim to promote? (ii) Should and can law in general interfere in the regulation of innovation? (iii) How can competition law play a role in the promotion of innovation? (iv) Should competition law not remain in the shadow of Intellectual Property (IP’) laws that are already designed to provide innovators with incentives or should it be the other way around? (v) Last but not the least, in the context of the problematic trichotomy antitrust/IP/innovation, should a customized approach be conceived for developing countries characterized by different socioeconomic conditions or should one plea for convergence?
In this article (and subsequently, expanded paper), I reflect upon the role of law, and particularly competition laws, in the promotion of innovation in developing countries and the problematic relationship between IP, competition laws and innovation. Up until now, (competition) law’s potential to drive innovation has been either closely associated with patent law or analyzed on a mere casuistic basis in the setting of specific antitrust or mergers cases. However, the enforcement of competition laws against unlawful monopolizing conduct plays in general an undeniable role in the promotion of innovation. Competition law promotes innovation by removing barriers to freedom of choice, trade and market access and prevents the formation of monopolies or conditions in the marketplace susceptible of stifling the development of new products. This implies however analyzing the connection between the market structure and the ability to influence undertakings to innovate: while in some cases, a large number of companies on the market may slow down innovation, in others, the lack of competitive pressure may reduce the incentives to innovate (e.g. international market of derived financial products).
Although the debate on the promotion of innovation has been restricted to developed countries, the promotion of innovation is equally vital for developing countries, notably in Africa. These countries are looking up to the EU and US and trying to adopt similar competition laws and policies. What’s more, a number of developing countries have been deriving their antitrust legal frameworks from Western countries, as a result of trade agreements. Globalization appears to push developing countries in the sense of convergence, but is this tendency beneficial for these countries quest for innovation? Absolute convergence of antitrust enforcement might not suit the current economic stage of most developing countries, particularly in Africa. A ‘Western’ design of antitrust laws and policies might not fit the socioeconomic conditions of these countries. This might be particularly problematic when governments are struggling to promote local innovation but face inevitable IP constraints.
Reconciling the difficult relationship between antitrust and patent law can be particularly complex in African countries since patent policy has a significant impact on development. Although one might at first think that developing countries should emphasize patent policy, as they are considerably behind the global technological frontier and are craving domestic innovation, they cannot afford the short-term consumer welfare loss that must be incurred to generate patentee reward. Some African countries like South Africa have been developing a solid IP regulatory framework so as to incentivize innovation, but many lack the technological and financial capacity to invest in R&D. In such cases, access to protected technologies on reasonable terms may be the key to more domestic innovation. What does this mean for the trichotomy innovation-IP-competition? Although developing countries urgently require innovation, should their competition authorities look less up to Western models and rather question whether they should sacrifice consumer welfare by upholding patent exploitation practices?
Instead of pushing developing countries toward convergence of global competition policy, the specific socioeconomic conditions of these countries should be taken into consideration. Thomas Cheng argues, rightly so one might say, that ‘antitrust principles and doctrines need to be tailored to domestic economic circumstances. Markets and economies function differently in developing countries and antitrust laws should reflect these differences. This is a particularly important lesson for African countries as they are prone to imitate the approaches of developed countries without the required customization. Different suggestions have been advanced in the literature, such as the reduction of patent protection in developing countries, allowing even the imitation of foreign technology so that domestic innovators possess a technological basis they can further develop, or the expansion of compulsory licensing beyond certain drugs for developing countries.
This contribution aimed to draw attention to the challenging role of law as the driver (or at least guardian) of innovation in developing countries. Competition and IP laws both wish to share a supporting role in this ‘innovation film’ taking place in developing countries. Should they be granted this part in a context of convergence of laws and policies or should IP remain in the shadow in order to ensure that the innovation film can successfully be produced and released in the theaters? You decide who gets the part at this audition; however, recalling Eleanor Fox’ words ‘antitrust should not be used to protect David from Goliath, but it may be used to empower David against Goliath’.
To be continued…
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 There is a significant body of literature arguing that IP does not necessarily promote innovation. For an overview, see, e.g., B. Frischmann, ‘Innovation and Institutions: Rethinking the Economics of U.S. Science and Technology Policy’ (2000) 24 Vermont Law Review, 347. Julie E. Cohen, ‘Copyright, Creativity, Catalogs: Creativity and Culture in Copyright Theory’ (2007) 40 U.C. Davis L. Review 1151.
 Thomas K. Cheng, ‘A Developmental Approach to the Patent-Antitrust Interface’ (2012) 33 Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business 1’, 79.
 Thomas K. Cheng, ‘A Developmental Approach to the Patent-Antitrust Interface’ (2012) 33 Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business 1’, 4.
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