Tech Dirt | 21 March 2017
Eli Lilly loses quixotic quest to get Canada to pay $500 million for rejecting its bad patents
Over the last few years, we’ve written a ton about "corporate sovereignty" provisions in trade agreements. Technically, these tend to be called "Investor State Dispute Settlement" or ISDS provisions, but I really believe that a decent part of the reason they’re called something so boring is to stop people from paying attention to just how nefarious these provisions truly are. One of the reasons we first started paying attention to these provisions — as they were showing up in agreements under negotiation, such as the TPP and TTIP — was following a story involving the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly demanding $100 million from Canada for rejecting two of its patents.
The issue was that Canada had rejected these two patents because the company couldn’t prove that the patented drugs were actually useful. Eli Lilly claimed that Canada had no right to reject patents on that basis, arguing that it was a "dramatic" shift in how patents were reviewed, and thus it was "expropriating its property" and undermining the company’s "expected future profits." Think about that for a second. By the time this case went to an actual tribunal, the amount that the company was demanding had ballooned from $100 million to $500 million. This battle has waged on for many years — and for Eli Lilly, this was a huge deal. Management at the company basically bet the company on continuing to get new patents, and any hiccup — even a rejection of patents for not being useful — could be a disaster for the company. The company even pushed to get Canada slammed during diplomatic proceedings in the infamous Special 301 Report for the USTR for daring to reject its patents — and the USTR complied.
Well, it looks like all of that may have been for nothing. That’s because Eli Lilly has lost entirely, and not only won’t it be getting the $500 million it wanted, but it also has to pay Canada’s $5 million in legal fees. You can read the final award here or down below. Of course, some may argue that this shows that the ISDS corporate sovereignty provisions work out fine in the end, with tribunals getting things right (even if that’s not actually true in many cases), but just the fact that the Canadian government had to go through this massive and expensive process for many years just for rejecting two bad patents should show why ISDS provisions are such a problem.
In the ruling, the tribunal even notes the Special 301 report that Eli Lilly worked so hard to have call out Canada’s patenting practices, but more or less dismisses it, by noting that others, such as Mexico didn’t complain similarly :
“The Tribunal has paid particular attention to the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Special 301 Report of the USTR. In these documents, USTR notes that the United States “has serious concerns about the lack of clarity and the impact of the heightened utility requirements for patents that Canadian courts have applied recently”. This comment cannot be dismissed outright as a lobbying effort by Claimant, as suggested by Respondent. However, the Special 301 Report stands alone in the record as a complaint regarding Canada’s utility doctrine from any other State, including Mexico, in the decade since the promise utility doctrine was allegedly adopted. For the Tribunal, that silence speaks louder than the single, brief criticism contained in the USTR’s Special 301 Report.”
In other words, sure, maybe it wasn’t just because Eli Lilly heavily lobbied Congress and the USTR to attack Canada on this point, but the fact that no other country seems concerned with Canada’s standards for denying patents, it certainly looks like this wasn’t such a big deal.
Also in the ruling, there’s a focus on "expectations." Remember, a big part of Eli Lilly’s claims was how this impacted its "expected" profits. But here, the tribunal basically notes that just because Eli Lilly expected Canada to ignore its own law, it doesn’t mean that it actually enforcing its own laws is some nefarious plot :
“The record shows that at the time Claimant made its investments, it was aware that Canadian patent law required patented inventions to be useful. Eli Lilly executives testified that they understood the Canadian utility requirement to be a low threshold. In fact, it appears that the utility of Strattera and Zyprexa in Canada was taken for granted within the company. Claimant expected its patents would not be invalidated for lack of utility.
However, this perception cannot amount to a legitimate expectation. For the reasons stated above, the Tribunal has found that each of the three elements of the alleged promise utility doctrine had a foundation in Canadian law when Claimant’s patents were filed. At that time, although Claimant may not have been able to predict the precise trajectory of the law on utility, it should have, and could have, anticipated that the law would change over time as a function of judicial decision-making.”
The idea behind ISDS was to encourage investment in developing nations, where there was a fear that a sketchy government might seize a factory or something. But that’s not a problem between Canada and the US, and Eli Lilly should have been able to put on its big boy pants and recognize that maybe, just maybe, Canada can reject some of its patents, and the company doesn’t need to throw an international hizzy fit. Next time, rather than betting the company on patents, perhaps the company will start thinking about business models that don’t require a complete lottery ticket.