Health: The Place of Patents in Health Care

The Story:

The US Supreme Court has been taking the side of “intellectual property doves” rather than hawks in a fair number of recent patent and copyright cases. Some of these cases have involved biomedical inventions.

The most recent example of a biomedical patent dispute settled by the high court is the Minerva Surgical case, involving two similar but not identical products each designed to allow minimally invasive treatment of abnormal uterine bleeding.


Patent protection is important for the advance of medical technology. The prospect of earning a valuable patent is, after all, a powerful incentive for the development of improved treatments, devices, pharmaceuticals, and so forth.

On the other hand, overly zealous (or “hawkish”) defense of patent rights has its drawbacks. It entrenches a monopoly and allows those who control the patents to drive up the price. It may also encourage “patent trolls,” who game the system for what are in essence arbitrage profits.

In Pill Form:

The Minerva case involved a technical legal doctrine called “assignor estoppel.” That is not especially important. What is more important is the bottom line: the Supreme Court’s recent dovish streak should probably be applauded. Patent law is about striking the right balances, and the errors until recently have been on the other side, toward hawkishness and its anti-competitive consequences.

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