Techdirt has just written about the extraordinary legal action taken against a company producing Covid-19 tests. Sadly, it’s not the only example of some individuals putting profits before people. Here’s a story from Italy, which is currently seeing more new coronavirus cases and deaths than anywhere else in the world. Last Thursday, a hospital in Brescia, in the north of Italy, needed supplies of special valves in order to use breathing equipment to help keep Covid-19 patients alive in intensive care (original in Italian). The manufacturer was unable to provide them because of the demand for this particular valve. The Metro site explains what happened next:
With the help of the editor of a local newspaper Giornale di Brescia and tech expert Massimo Temporelli, doctors launched a search for a 3D printer — a devise that produces three dimensional objects from computer designs.
Word soon reached Fracassi, a pharmaceutical company boss in possession of the coveted machine. He immediately brought his device to the hospital and, in just a few hours, redesigned and then produced the missing piece.
Actually, it wasn’t quite as simple as that suggests. Business Insider Italia explains that even though the original manufacturer was unable to supply the part, it refused to share the relevant 3D file with Fracassi to help him print the valve. It even went so far as to threaten him for patent infringement if he tried to do so on his own. Since lives were at stake, he went ahead anyway, creating the 3D file from scratch. According to the Metro article, he produced an initial batch of ten, and then 100 more, all for free. Fracassi admits that his 3D-printed versions might not be very durable or re-usable. But when it’s possible to make replacements so cheaply — each 3D-printed part costs just one euro, or roughly a dollar — that isn’t a problem. At least it wouldn’t be, except for that threat of legal action, which is also why Fracassi doesn’t dare share his 3D file with other hospitals, despite their desperate need for these valves.
And if you’re wondering why the original manufacturer would risk what is bound to be awful publicity for its actions, over something that only costs one euro to make, a detail in the Business Insider Italia article provides an explanation: the official list price for a single valve is 10,000 euros — about $11,000. This is a perfect example of how granting an intellectual monopoly in the form of a patent allows almost arbitrarily high prices to be charged, and quite legally. That would be bad enough in any situation, but when lives are at stake, and Italian hospitals struggle to buy even basic equipment like face masks, demanding such a sum is even worse. And when a pandemic is raging out of control, for a company to threaten those selflessly trying to save lives in this way is completely beyond the pale.