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Tuesday, Apr 09, 2002

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Protecting India's intellectual genius

Robert D. Blackwill

IN DISCUSSING ways in which we can leverage the creativity of the public and private sectors in research and development by promoting indigenous technologies, we are guided by Dr R. A. Mashelkar's counsel to proceed in India from mind to market to benefit the Indian people, and the world at large, through new products, new jobs, new exports, and new wealth. One cannot think of more sound advice.

Here, I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Ideas must work through the brains and arms of men, or they are no better than dreams." Most economists agree that there are two ways to cause wealth — with the hands and with the mind. In modern economies, the intellectual capital on which wealth formation depends comes in the first instance not from large organisations, but from the original ideas of very smart individuals. Tapping into this vast reservoir of intellectual power in India and in the US is indispensable to the economic futures of our two nations.

Our governments, therefore, face this decisive question: How can they best assist in getting these ideas from conception to product?

In a special commitment to address India's health, agricultural, environmental and industrial requirements, the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, intends to enlarge spending on research to 2 per cent of GDP by 2005.

This increased expenditure should result in a corresponding boost in the pace of study and innovation in India's laboratories. With much experience in public-private partnerships over the past decades, the US has learned that the benefits from these collaborative endeavours have brought extraordinary results in all the domains that India is addressing. In addition to growing the economy, new products can promote human health, advance agricultural productivity and improve the environment.

Original research and product improvement, however, come not only from a strong commitment to R&D in the public arena, but also through research in the private sector. An essential foundation of any fruitful public-private partnership that capitalises on intellectual property is a legal regime that protects innovation, and encourages technology transfer.

The Indian government has made a concerted effort to increase the size and capabilities of the Indian Patent Office. In welcoming this important development, the US would like to find ways to assist India in processing quickly the estimated 30,000 pending patent applications.

At the same time, the absence in India of a world-class product patent law that covers inventions, consistent with World Trade Organisation norms, is an obstacle to the promotion of public-private sector cooperation, to foreign investment, and to economic growth. It is a fact of life that Indian and foreign firms alike will be reluctant to invest in research and development in India if they cannot be sure that their innovations will be safe from unauthorised exploitation. Each day that action on this vital issue is postponed, Indian intellectual capital produced by scientists, research institutes, and leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms, remains stifled, underutilised, or could be pilfered.

India's laws regarding copyright safeguards are excellent for such things as literary works, music, theatrical performances and computer software. The same is true for trademarks. It would give the economy a significant boost in the period ahead if India adopts a product patent law that is of the same high international standard.

(The author is the US Ambassador to India.)

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