US Patent Influence and the Independence of our Tribunals

A recent story in the Mint exposes a questionable letter from the US Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke to his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma, the Hon’ble Minister of Commerce. I extract the relevant portions of this letter as produced in the Mint piece:

“Dear Minister, I look forward to meeting with you during my upcoming trip to India with President Obama. As we advance and strengthen the US-India bilateral commercial relationship with this visit, India should fully consider the requisite business climate for spurring innovation, especially with respect to intellectual property protection,” begins the letter, dated 2 November. “Therefore, I am particularly concerned that the US biopharmaceutical firm Gilead’s HIV/AIDS drug Viread receives fair consideration.”

For those interested, I’ve detailed out the story and its implications on SpicyIP. In particular, readers of this blog may be interested in aspects of this story dealing with the IPAB, a specialised IP tribunal and how its very structure violates constitutional canons. I reproduce relevant portions below:

“In this letter, dispatched just days prior to Obama’s India visit, the US Secretary attempts, in his official capacity, to advance the corporate commercial (patent) interests of Gilead, a multinational drug corporation, in which Donald Rumsfield (ex Secretary of Defence) was rumoured to have held shares during the height of the Tamiflu controversy.

This letter deals with Gilead’s pending patent appeal with the IPAB, where it challenged the rejection of its patent covering Viread, an HIV drug, by the Indian patent office. Secretary Locke asks that Gilead’s case receive “fair” consideration.

In all fairness, the Secretary only asked that the case receive “fair” consideration. However, as DG Shah rightly notes:

“I doubt any other country, including the US, would entertain if the government of India takes up such corporate issues with their judiciary mechanism. Ideally, our government should have discarded the US plea immediately, saying the patent tribunal here is strong enough to decide such matters independently,” said D.G. Shah, secretary general of IPA.”

Further, the fact that this letter was sent to the Minister for Commerce (who controls the patent office) raises some problematic issues with the “independence” of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), a specialised IP tribunal tasked with dealing with certain kinds of IP disputes.

As some of you may know, the IPAB effectively replaced the functions of the High Court, in so far as a large range of IP disputes were concerned. One would have naturally expected the IPAB to be structured as close as possible to an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, this was not to be …and those that were responsible for drafting IPAB rules and pre-requisites for appointment ensured that they themselves and their brethren (Indian Legal Service [ILS] officers) got selected to these plum posts. Little wonder then that the IPAB is seen as just another wing of the “executive”. And not as an independent tribunal functioning as an organ of the “judiciary”.

Paradoxically enough, our own judiciary (Supreme Court and High Court judges) has been kept out of the process for selecting “judicial” members at the IPAB….this prerogative lies solely with the government (the executive). More problematically, while Article 217 of our Constitution recognises advocates with 10 years of practice as being eligible to be appointed as High Court judges, the IPAB does not consider them fit enough to be appointed as judicial members! Since the inception of the IPAB, only ILS (Indian Legal Service) officers with next to no IP experience have been appointed as “judicial” members, with some of them even being elevated to the exalted status of Chairman and Vice-Chairman.

All of this results in a flagrant violation of norms laid down in the NCLT judgment, where the Supremes came down harshly on tribunals that, far from being set up as “independent” organs capable of rendering impartial justice, ended up being stooges of the Executive.

Given this background, Secretary Locke may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that our Hon’ble Minister, Anand Sharma has the power to influence the working of the IPAB. In fact, the Mint report itself states that Secretary Locke’s letter was forwarded to the DIPP, the executive arm of the government responsible for patent matters.

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 comment