A patent is a title, granted by the public authorities, conferring a temporary monopoly for the exploitation of an invention on the person who reveals it, furnishes a sufficiently clear and full description of it and claims this monopoly.
The patent owner may give permission to other parties to use the invention, or sell the right to the invention in the form of a licence. An invention must be of practical use; and it must show an element of novelty and show an inventive step that could not be deduced by a person with average knowledge of the technical field. Finally, its subject matter must be accepted as “patentable” under law. There is fierce debate over whether scientific theories, discoveries of natural substances and new methods for medical treatment, such as offering advice on-line, are patentable. Patents are the mechanism for providing a profit incentive for investment in research and development. Patented pharmaceuticals must go through rigorous testing and approval before they can be put on the market.
The registering of a patent confers a market monopoly on the patent-holder, who is then able to charge a high price because there is no competition. When new medicines are patented, the result is often that people in the developing world cannot afford them.
Under Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules, a voluntary licence is required if an entity other than the patent holder wants to market the patented product. However, in the case of a national emergency, extreme urgency, or public non-commercial use, the need for a voluntary licence can be waived and a compulsory licence issued by a judicial or administrative authority. At Doha, there was agreement that countries could break patents in the interests of public health.
It is argued that patent regulations support long monopolies, which result in the price of patented, brand name drugs remaining high. However, others argue that patents are needed to help governments and firms recover the cost of research and development of new medicines and therefore act as an incentive for research and development.