Remarks by Director Iancu at IP Week – Accelerating Innovation, Recovery, and Growth in the COVID-19 Era

Keynote IP Leaders Panel: Accelerating Innovation, Recovery, and Growth in the COVID-19 Era

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu

August 26, 2020


As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Dawn! It’s great to be back with all of you for IP Week. It is an honor to be on the same program with such distinguished co-panelists. I remember fondly my visit for IP Week in Singapore a few years ago, and although we cannot see each other in person this year, it is good to at least be able to be back with you virtually.

Congratulations, Rena, on your new role as head of IPOS. We look forward to continuing the long and collaborative relationship between the USPTO and IPOS.

And congratulations to IPOS for hosting this timely event. Today’s topic, accelerating innovation, recovery and growth in the COVID-19 Era, is critically important. There has never been a greater need for innovation, and for predictability and awareness in the intellectual property system.

As of early August, around the world there were at least 28 potential COVID-19 vaccines being evaluated for safety and efficacy, with about 139 more in pre-clinical evaluation. These potential vaccines are being developed using a variety vaccine platforms, with differing numbers of doses and timing. Having this many different vaccines being developed is incredible, especially considering that several months ago we were just learning about the novel coronavirus. And this speed of development has also resulted in multiple tests for the virus, preventative equipment, ventilators, and so much more.

This rapid response is possible because of innovations already protected by IP before the pandemic, allowing researchers to jump in quickly using a variety of scientific techniques.

This is the power of IP: it is a catalyst to innovation.

There are several reasons for this. Part of the explanation is, first of all, access to knowledge. Patent applications disclose an invention so that others skilled in the same technology are able to make and use the invention from the information disclosed. Patents are published by IP Offices all around the world, in many different languages. As a result, patent disclosures can provide inspiration and lessons for future innovators anywhere in the world. With a reliable IP system, and the promise of protection down the line, inventors are willing to disclose their creations to the public.

Second, with a strong IP system, inventors are willing to make the investment of time, energy, and resources necessary to develop a commercial product or method. It is these prior investments and inventions that make possible a quick response during the current pandemic.

And likewise, the decisions we make today will impact the investments and inventions that will be needed during the next pandemic or other humanitarian crisis. Inventors and investors need to know that the IP they generate is respected when it is actually needed. They need to know that their IP protections are reliable.

If we do not respect IP rights during the crises when the technologies they protect are most needed, inventors will not put in the time and resources to develop technologies that will be important to have in the next crisis.

These are basic, fundamental principles without which an intellectual property system cannot be sustained in the long run.

By the way, these basic principles are not limited to vaccines and treatments for a new disease. We need innovation in many other areas as well. For example, we have been faced with challenges in effective communication because we cannot be physically in the same room together. Our need for collaboration has prompted us to innovate by turning to internet-based tools–such as the one we are using for this program.

Innovation must be a top priority, and not just now as we deal with the current pandemic. We must always have the future in mind.

To foster innovation that will benefit humanity in the future, history and data show unquestionably that technology explodes–and economies grow–when intellectual property is respected and enforced.

So, we should be concerned when we hear statements like “IP is a barrier to innovation” or that drastic measures like compulsory licenses should now be considered. At the very minimum, before any such measures are to be enacted, evidence of need must be shown, and IP experts must be consulted.   

As it turns out, the evidence to date shows that IP is a catalyst for, and not a barrier to, the development of vital technologies needed for the current pandemic. The evidence also shows that voluntary actions are being undertaken by many rights holders during this crisis, including: innovative licensing arrangements, the publication of scientific data on a free-to-use basis, the publication of technical specifications that enable others to manufacture, and the voluntary renouncement of enforcement of patents in certain jurisdictions during the crisis.

Of course, countries must retain flexibilities under their IP laws to address access if evidence does arise that certain IP rights are used (or abused) to obstruct. Even so, such flexibilities should be exercised only if voluntary solutions are inadequate, and only to the extent needed and in a targeted manner, and limited to the duration of the crisis. 

Precisely at this time of crisis, we must all work together to ensure the appropriate balance: respect for IP rights around the world, together with fair access to vital medical technologies on appropriate terms.

Because if we don’t ensure such balance, it will be that much more difficult for us to develop the technologies that will help us fight the crises of the future. The importance of intellectual property has never been more apparent than it is now.

The good news is that innovation and entrepreneurship have not ceased during the pandemic. And my agency has been there all along to help inventors and entrepreneurs at this difficult time.

Throughout the pandemic, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has continued to receive and examine patent and trademark applications uninterrupted and with unprecedented efficiency. And we have done so much more to support the creative community as they strive to overcome today’s challenges.

For example, we have offered new programs to expedite examination of patent and trademark applications related to COVID-19. We have extended deadlines and waived many fees. Our examiners and administrative judges have increasingly made use of video conferencing to continue their interactions with those who appear before them. And we are allowing absolutely all documents and applications, including plant patent applications, to be filed electronically. 

We have also seen that during a crisis, rapid access to existing technology can further accelerate the development of new technology. So earlier this year, the USPTO launched the Patents 4 Partnership (P4P) platform, which helps inventors showcase their patents, and potential licensees identify the technology they might need to license from others. This platform allows an owner of a patent or published patent application to voluntarily list it easily and at no cost. 

In addition, to better serve all of our stakeholders, IP offices around the world have been consulting throughout the pandemic, learning from each other and sharing best practices. And we have all engaged with WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization. In fact, discussions of IP on the international level must always include IP experts, such as the members of this panel and WIPO.

Indeed, if any part of the United Nations is to consider important IP policies, it must include WIPO–its IP agency–in such discussions. As the agency within the United Nations system responsible for IP services, policy, information and cooperation, WIPO has the necessary expertise and experience to address the issues arising for IP and innovation. 

Speaking of WIPO, I want to extend special congratulations to Singapore’s own, Daren Tang, for having been elected Director General of WIPO. I believe Daren is the first Singaporean to lead a UN agency. Daren, this honor is very well deserved indeed!

Daren was a superb and visionary leader of IPOS, and I am certain he will be an equally great leader of WIPO. Under Daren’s leadership, IP offices everywhere will work together in a cooperative manner to ensure that inventors and creators around the world have an equal opportunity to create, to own their creations, to start new companies, to succeed in existing companies, and ultimately to improve the state of the human condition wherever they might be.

And in the end, isn’t this what we are all working towards?

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you. It is an honor. And hopefully, I will see you all at next year’s IP Week in Singapore, in person.