Policy ForumBiomedical Research

The anticommons at 20: Concerns for research continue

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Science  27 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6400, pp. 335-337
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat4684

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Fifty years ago, Garrett Hardin famously predicted that unrestrained use of a common resource could lead to its overuse and depletion—the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” Thirty years later, Heller and Eisenberg introduced the term “anticommons” to the research-policy lexicon (1), postulating that unfettered exercise of individual property rights could lead to an equally tragic underutilization of resources. By drawing on analogies from land-use planning, they reasoned that if multiple holders of intellectual property (IP) rights, particularly patents, covering a biomedical technology can individually block others from conducting research on that technology, then overall research progress could be stifled. Though many observers now agree 20 years later that empirical evidence of a patent-based anticommons in biomedical research is inconclusive (2), if not wholly refuted (3, 4), there are emerging areas beyond patent law in which the proliferation of exclusionary rights may threaten research in much the way that Heller and Eisenberg predicted.