How India rejects bad patents

Strong standards for patents have filtered the bad from the good, with the least administrative and financial burden

Published - December 27, 2017 12:02 am IST


In 2005, India made some remarkable amendments to the Indian Patents Act of 1970, to keep medicines affordable in the country. Since then we have faced a significant blowback not just from the global pharmaceutical industry but also from developed world including from the U.S. and the European Union.

At the heart of the matter are the strong standards for patents which India introduced to promote genuine innovation across all fields of technology, in perfect compliance with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms. In contrast, developed countries have weaker standards as a result of incessant lobbying by corporate behemoths. Twelve years later, we now know what it means: India rejects bad patents in far greater number than developed countries.


The background

The findings of a new study by us which examined all 1,723 pharmaceutical applications rejected by the Indian Patent Office (IPO) between 2009 and 2016 have been an eye-opener.


Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act, a provision introduced to restrict the patenting of new forms of known pharmaceutical substances, became the subject of international attention after its use in rejecting a patent application by Novartis for the anti-cancer drug, Gleevec. We found that exceptions to patentability in Section 3 of the Act, which includes Section 3(d), were responsible for 65% of all rejected pharmaceutical patent applications.

Over its short lifetime, Section 3(d) has survived a challenge to its constitutionality before the Madras High Court, and Novartis’s fight against the rejection of its patent that went to the Supreme Court. Both courts ruled decisively to uphold the legality of Section 3(d). The United States Trade Representative has also repeatedly rebuked India for this provision in its Special 301 Report, despite its perfect compliance with WTO norms. While the world’s attention is still fixed on this legal experiment that the Indian Parliament introduced into law, there has been a dearth of information on how the IPO has applied Section 3(d). We found that it filters the bad from the good, with the lowest possible administrative and financial burden.

Rejected using Section 3(d)

An astonishing 45% of all rejected pharmaceutical patent applications cited Section 3(d) as a reason for rejection: the applications were identified as mere variants of known compounds that lacked a demonstrable increase in therapeutic value.

Between 1995 and 2005, prior to our new law, India provided a temporary measure to receive patent applications for pharmaceutical products at the IPO, called the mailbox system. Though introduced in 2005, the use of Section 3(d) gradually increased from 2009 when mailbox applications were examined. The spike coincides with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Novartis case, in April 2013. It would appear that this judgment provided legal certainty to Indian patent law in general, and Section 3(d) in particular, enabling the IPO to weed out trivial innovations.


At the patent office

In the last decade, we found that the IPO rejected about 95% of all pharmaceutical patent applications on its own. Only 5% were through the intervention of a third party, such as a pre-grant opponent. Our basic patentability criteria, that the invention should be new, involve an inventive step (also known as non-obviousness), and should be capable of industrial application, were the most frequently used grounds for rejection, followed by the exceptions to patentability grounds in Section 3.

Section 3(d) invaluably equips the IPO with a yardstick to evaluate applications that are merely trivial innovations over existing technology. In cases where the invention is a variant of a known substance, the criterion for patentability is proof of a necessary improvement in its performance for its designated use, i.e., increased efficacy. In the context of pharmaceuticals, as was the case involving Novartis, this translates to evidence of an improvement in therapeutic efficacy. In other words, trivial innovation must result in a far better product in order to qualify for patent protection.

Within the arcane world of patent law, an argument against provisions such as Section 3(d) is that it is no more than an extension of one of the basic requirements of patentability: non-obviousness. Certainly, for an application to be deemed non-obvious, it has to establish a technical advance over what was known before.

But non-obviousness standards are more effectively applied in invalidity proceedings before a court of law than by officials at the IPO. The advantage that a provision such as Section 3(d) provides is the ability to question an application at the IPO itself without having to go through expensive and time-consuming litigation. The high cost of litigation poses significant barriers. Cases are often settled before reaching a conclusion, in pay-for-delay settlements negotiated by patent owners, where generic manufacturers are essentially paid to stay off the market. Patent litigation is expensive, but it is the patient who eventually pays a higher price — by being subject to exorbitant medicine prices, driven by the unmerited exclusivity that bad patents create.

As a check

Without Section 3(d), the Indian public would have to bear the burden of invalidating a bad patent through litigation.

India is certainly not alone in facing two connected challenges: constrained government budgets and urgent public health needs. As Section 3(d) has been efficient in separating the bad patents from the good in India, it would be a wise move for other developing countries, grappling with similar challenges, to incorporate similar provisions in their law.

Feroz Ali is the IPR Chair Professor at IIT Madras and Sudarsan Rajagopal is a London-based patent analyst. They work on a Shuttleworth Foundation project on access to medicines

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.