Kyunghyang | 22 May 2021
In memory of Heesob Nam, a patent attorney who fought against vaccine inequality until the end
by Byeong-il Oh, CEO of IPLeft and Jinbo Network Center, Information Sharing Solidarity
Translation by Google translate
Heesob Nam, a patent attorney who dedicated his life to preventing the monopoly of ’intellectual property’ by a few, passed away on May 10th. In commemoration of his spirit, Oh Byung-il, the head of the Information Sharing Solidarity, who has been working with him for a long time, writes a ’commemorative letter’.
I remember the first time I met him around 1999. The interest of Korean social movements in the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was launched in 1994, was mainly focused on the damages in the agricultural sector, and the recognition of intellectual property rights agreements (TRIPs) was not very deep. Critical awareness of intellectual property rights is slowly beginning to sprout among relatively young activists interested in digital issues. In February 1999, a discussion on intellectual property rights was held, and the author, who was very interested in the information sharing movement at the time, also participated as a presenter. Since then, several people have started learning groups under the name of ’Intellectual Property Research Group’. Then one day, Heesob Nam came to us, saying that he sympathized with our problem. Later, the group developed into an information sharing solidarity, IPLeft, and he started as an activist and served as a representative.
Critique of monopoly rights such as patents
He was a patent attorney. A patent attorney is a person who acts on behalf of related affairs such as the registration of intellectual property such as patents and trademarks. Of course, from the point of view of a patent attorney, it would be better if there are more people who want to obtain a patent. However, he was a unique patent attorney who had a very critical view on monopoly rights such as patents. He felt it was unreasonable to patent an invention that was not very innovative. In this context, he criticized the patent office, which uses patent fees as its main source of income, overdoing the granting of patent rights as a patent business. In addition, he has been raising questions about national policy fundamentals such as the baseless belief that innovation is achieved by increasing the number of patents and strengthening monopoly rights, and the national patent hub theory. His criticism didn’t just rest on theory. Based on his legal and practical expertise, he has worked hard to correct the distorted intellectual property legal system. Without him, Korea’s intellectual property system might have been a playground for only a few experts.
He was a leading fighter in the drug access movement. The biggest controversy surrounding patents around the world is the issue of access to medicines, and monopolies caused by patents increase the price of medicines, and even if there are medicines, patients cannot access them.
In the early 2000s, Gleevec, a treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia, became controversial in Korea. Although it was an innovative new drug, there were not many patients who could afford Gleevec, which is priced at about 25,000 won per tablet. It was Nam Heesob’s brother who suggested another method of compulsory enforcement to patients who had requested drug price cuts and insurance coverage. A compulsory license is a system that allows a third party to invent a patented invention without the permission of the patentee for public interest, such as protecting public health. However, in Korea, it is a system that exists only as a legal document and has never been used properly.
In January 2002, when there was no documentary form for compulsory execution, he requested compulsory execution of Gleevec. However, the Korean Intellectual Property Office dismissed it because it could greatly undermine the basic purpose of the patent system.
However, patients’ access to medicines has expanded, such as the expansion of insurance coverage due to the struggles of the patients he applied for. He also helped import Gleevec’s generic drug, Vinat, from Naco, an Indian pharmaceutical company, for uninsured patients. The price of Vinat was only $3, which is one-seventh that of Gleevec. As a result of his efforts to revise the patent law to solve institutional limitations, he led the revision of the compulsory enforcement system for export purposes and the compulsory implementation system for government use for patients in countries with insufficient manufacturing capacity.
He resented that a nation’s intellectual property system was coercively created by transnational corporations and major powers, not out of its own needs for industrial and cultural development. Korea was no exception. When the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations began in 2006, he formed the ’Intellectual Property Rights Task Force’ and took the lead in analyzing and criticizing the harm that the Korea-US FTA negotiations would have on access to culture and medicine. He, who demanded transparent and democratic trade negotiations by pointing out the problems of the intellectual property rights clause with careful logic, may have been more difficult for the Korean government, which was secretly pursuing the Korea-US FTA negotiations, than his counterpart.
Intellectual property journalism by great power
He tried to reconstruct the discourse around intellectual property rights from the perspective of human rights. This is because the institutional reform movement has no choice but to have limitations under the discourse in which the monopoly on knowledge becomes a legitimate right and the right to access knowledge becomes an ’exception to the right’. He went to study in Germany and England, and received a Ph.D. on the subject of’Intellectual Property and Human Rights’. It is his contribution to include the right to enjoy information culture along with the right to privacy and freedom of expression in the ’Information Human Rights Report’ published by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2013.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Covenant on Social Rights stipulate that everyone has the right to enjoy culture and to share the benefits of science and technology, prior to that, the right to access knowledge and culture in response to intellectual property rights was properly defined as human rights. I couldn’t. In 2018, when the government and the National Assembly were actively discussing constitutional amendment, he insisted on the establishment of a ’science and culture right’ as a constitutional right.
In the face of the global infectious disease disaster of Covid-19, the value of sharing and opening up the knowledge he has fought for his whole life is becoming more urgent. The vaccine was developed with huge public funding, but the greed of large pharmaceutical companies and vaccine nationalism have prevented the people of poor countries from accessing the vaccine. Sadly, he is not with us now, as international voices call for a waiver of the WTO’s intellectual property provisions.
Earlier this year, he prepared a series of special lectures on intellectual property rights to restore the public nature of medical technology and overcome the pandemic. The moment I read the publicity letter, I had an intuition that this special lecture was his last business. This is because he had been battling cancer for several years and heard that the situation had worsened recently. Field coughed throughout the lecture and his voice faded, but he tried to explain a little more of what he knew.
I have known him for 20 years, but I couldn’t keep up with his knowledge and passion. He must have been very upset. No one can replace him, but all of us who know him must carry on his work.
I would like to borrow this space to deliver my final greetings to Heesob, a respected comrade and beloved senior. ’Hyung, I want you to put everything down and rest well.’