Manchester Manifesto questions ‘Ownership of Science’: A Renaissance or Fantasy?

Manchester Manifesto questions ‘Ownership of Science’: A Renaissance or Fantasy?

Nirav Bhatt is an LLM candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

In what could be seen as a strange or rather surprising move, a distinguished group of academicians, the majority of which are based at the University of Manchester, have issued something called the Manchester Manifesto. The Manifesto Group brings together international experts from relevant disciplines to address the question of “Who Owns Science?” The group’s goal is not only to investigate the above question but to present and apply their findings to build a better future for humanity.

The manifesto mentions that considering the question of ownership of science, the existing model of innovation impedes achievement of core scientific goals and restricts access to scientific knowledge and products, thereby limiting the public benefits of science.  This can restrict the flow of information, thereby inhibiting the progress of science; and it may hinder innovation through the costly and complicated nature of the system.  Therefore it is suggested in the manifesto that limited improvements may be achieved through modification of the current IP system, but consideration of alternative models is urgently required.

Problems arise here, because some of the findings in the manifesto are factually incorrect. Needless to say, since this manifesto has been made public, there has been growing levels of criticism within the UK.  The Manifesto calls for a reconsideration of the existing system of patents and intellectual property regulated by national and international laws. Professor John Sulston, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2002 and one who is backing the manifesto reports that ownership rights pose a real danger to scientific progress for the public good.  The IP Kat reports, the UK's Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) has already issued a detailed rebuttal of what John Sulston states.  Where efforts are being made in different ways and forms to reconcile, synthesize and restructure the existing fabric of IP, to include legitimate concerns from different corners of society, this naive move might pose a danger, as such a sharp turn may steer the car off the cliff.

The question of ownership of science is both tricky and vital.  Ownership is the key building block in the development of the capitalist socio-economic system which refers to a legal entitlement attached to the expressed form of an idea, or to some other intangible subject matter. However, the basic public policy rationale for the ownership of intellectual property is to facilitate and encourage disclosure of innovation into the public domain for the common good, by granting authors and inventors exclusive rights to reward their works and inventions for a limited period.

Further, the defense of public good does not justify the motive of the manifesto because what defines public good is yet to be determined. Neither can we can operate in a vacuum or deal with the issues of patent law in isolation without considering the theory of reward for the labour.  The point here is that enforcing patents as property rights can improve the socially constructive coordination that facilitates the complex process of commercializing innovation thereby improving both access and competition. I am not talking of any watertight compartments for protection of rights but rather embracing a more coherent scheme in which both the actors and the audience benefit equally.