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The Longest Now

Plumpy’Nut Patent – Has their “patentleft” option seen wide use so far?
Monday July 15th 2013, 10:31 am
Filed under: citation needed,ideonomy,knowledge,metrics

In 1996, two French food scientists, André Briend and Michel Lescanne, developed a nut-based food formulation to serve as an emergency food relief product in famine-stricken areas.  The goal was to have a high-density balanced food with a long and robust shelf life – one which, unlike the previous standard of milk-based therapeutic food, could be taken at home rather than in a hospital.

They soon formed the company Nutriset to further develop and commercialize the idea.  Their most popular product, Plumpy’Nut, has shipped millions of units and currently makes up roughly 90% of UNICEF’s stocks of ready-to-use therapeutic foods [RUTFs] for famine relief.

In forming their company, they captured their idea in the form of a patent (a standard way to declare ownership of and investment) and went on to build a production chain around it.  This included tweaked formulas and a family of products; production and packaging factories; and grant-writing and research to get certification + field-feedback + approval from various UN bodies.  This involved few years of up-front investment and reputation-building, and then ramping up mass production of millions of pounds of Plumpy’Nut and its derivatives. They later set up a novel “patentleft” process allowing companies in developing countries to use the patent commercially, and make derivatives from it, at no cost — after a brief online registration. This is something which has received surprisingly little attention since, considering how simple and elegant their solution. Read on for details!

Once Plumpy’Nut became successful, Médecins Sans Frontières‘s “access to medicine” arm began to worry that further development and cost-reduction in emergency food aid was being held back by a Nutriset monopoly.  Perhaps there were cheaper, better, more local ways to build on the idea that the patent was preventing.  Nutriset had also started thinking about moving towards local production of the food, in 2005 starting a PlumpyField program supporting partners who manufacture Nutriset products in the developing countries that were receiving them.

In March 2009, MSF wrote an open letter to Nutriset stating that their patent was restricting access to this lifesaving technology.  Their “access to medicine” campaigns had been following this set of patents as a potential barrier to development since at least 2008. In response to the open letter and ensuing public discussion, Nutriset and IRD created a “Patents Usage Agreement” which is one of the simplest open-patent protocols I have seen (other almost-free patent protocols include the Linux Open Invention Network, BiOS, and GreenXchange):

Any  company that is at least 51% locally-owned, and based in one of a list of developing countries, can sign the agreement and mail it to Nutriset.  On Nutriset’s receipt of the signed agreement, without any other interaction or negotiation, the company can start to use the Plumpy’Nut patent, provided that it uses a different trademark and implements its own quality control.

Nutriset asks for nothing in return but adhering to the obligations noted above.  France’s IRD, which helped to develop the patents, asks for a donation of 1% of profits to their research efforts.  They make it easy to enter into this agreement through a two-step online registration process.

Sadly — and here is where you come in, dear reader — while there was a great deal of speculation, letter-writing, and concern expressed in 2010 following the open letter, once Nutriset responded in this excellent and unprecedented way, there has been little follow-up (beyond one good Agri-IP blog post, on a now-retired blog, in Dec. 2010) evaluating how the patent usage agreement has been used.  It would be helpful to see a recap from either MSF, who felt innovation was being restricted, from any of the high-profile development-aid commentators who pounced on the topic as news, or from the Nutriset team. Can anyone point me to recent analysis?

Thanks for writing this up, I hope someone sheds light on how it has developed the past few years.

A quibble: I don’t see the ‘left’ (share-alike) in the agreement, and independent of that it has conditions that put it far from free-as-in-freedom.

Comment by Mike Linksvayer 07.15.13 @ 6:03 pm

When I attended Izumi Foundation’s conference several years ago, one of the IF recipients (Meds&Food For Kids) made their own version of Plumpy’nuts in Haiti called Medika Mamba. It’s a pretty neat model to work around the patent issues in LMIC.

Comment by mika 07.16.13 @ 3:40 am

Mike – you’re right, it doesn’t have a share-alike-like clause.

But it does provide a negotiation-free way to use a patent, backed by patent law/timeout — just as copyleft provides a negotiation-free way to use (c) material, backed by (c) law/timeout.

Sadly, I don’t know of any truly-free patent protocols in existence. I had to update the post to note that even the OIN and BiOS protocols are not free; GreenXchange’s site seems broken, so I can’t see what their most-open “intellectual capital” licenses are like, or are used for.

Comment by metasj 07.20.13 @ 9:39 pm

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