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Don't Let Patent Wars Widen Digital Divide

Hugh Linnehan

For generations, large pockets of Africa were isolated from things many of us take for granted: access to medical treatment and advances that can make the difference between a healthy, productive life or debilitating illness — or even an early death.

These problems still persist, but over the last two decades technology has helped break through and enable medical professionals to reach the poorest and most remote populations and offer some hope. For example, in Africa remote mobile systems enable healthcare providers to go into villages and send images and results to doctors thousands of miles away who can review and act on the information. My organization, RHD International, focuses on eradicating rheumatic heart disease in areas of extreme poverty. I have personally seen how technology can extend a doctor's reach and save lives.

It's transformational.

But I'm also a trained lawyer, and it's disconcerting to hear of technology wars that threaten to derail the next wave of devices and applications that can help bridge the gap in poverty-stricken areas of low- and middle-income countries.

The International Telecommunications Union is under pressure because it wants to limit the ways companies and patent holders can block others from using patents that have become the standard for everyone. For example, at one point RIM nearly had to shut down its Blackberry service in the United States over a patent issue.

Now imagine that happening with medical or mobile devices in remote parts of Africa. It's troubling to imagine that vital medical services could be shut off due to a dispute. In many ways, that's what the ITU is trying to stop.

But some companies, such as Nokia, that agreed to have their patents used by everyone are trying to renege on agreements to make them widely available. They are fighting the ITU to retain the ability to seek broad injunctive relief that could have the effect of forcing some companies to shut off key technology services.

The ITU is trying to implement a growing sentiment worldwide to ensure that patents remain available once they become a standard. That means that a medical device or smartphone manufacturer would have less worries that it would have to shut down or potentially pay unreasonable fees to use these patents.

But Nokia is fighting this. Worse, they are enlisting the Finnish government to apply pressure on the ITU before it makes a final ruling. Nokia has a proud history, but this smacks of a struggling company fighting at the governmental level, not in the marketplace. There's no question that patents need to be honored — after all that is what fueled the innovative products such as mobile echocardiography devices that healthcare professionals and patients rely on for medical care in Africa today.

But the ITU should be left to do its job. And companies should be focused on winning in the marketplace. And our focus should be on helping to solve the world's problems.

Hopefully, the ITU, Finland and Nokia as well other interested parties can find a solution. I hope they keep in mind that there is more at stake here than just euros.

By Hugh Linnehan, Executive Director at RHD International
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