The twelfth century canon lawyer Gratian once wrote “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him you have killed him.” If Gratian were alive today, he might take a look at the current state of global health and say, “Succor the woman dying of disease, because if you have not helped her you have killed her.” Both of these statements express an ethical obligation: if I have food, and someone else who is hungry does not, I am obligated to share my food. Likewise, if I have medicine, and someone else who is sick does not, I am obligated to share my medicine.
Unfortunately, with regard to medicines and other essential products, modern institutions of intellectual property often fail to enforce or even recognize such ethical obligations. In some ways, these institutions uphold an even harsher attitude toward intellectual property than other types of property. With food, even if the hungry person receives no bread, he is still permitted to produce his own. With medicines, medical technologies, and other types of goods that are protected by institutions of intellectual property, the law can and often does prevent the sick person from producing her own.