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The Emerging IP Law of Health Information

I have hinted at problems with uniform trade secrecy laws in this volume and a law review article. I plan to continue that line of research in a co-authored work with Dave Levine, exploring the costs of trade secrecy in the finance, energy, and communications sectors. When it comes to “solutions,” I’m increasingly inclined to frame the issue as: how do we operationalize the insights of Michael Carroll’s “Uniformity Costs” concept? In other words, how do we shape doctrine so that it respects the unique economic conditions (and moral imperatives) related to specific industries?

One way to do so is to insist on the autonomy of a subject matter defined legal field (versus the trans-substantive aspirations of, say, contract, property, or intellectual property law). The “law of the horse crowd” usually assails that autonomy by warning about the distortionary affects of applying different laws to different sectors. Health law professors shared that worry for a while, debating whether health care law is a “coherent field.” But that anxiety seems to have faded as a distinct arena of health care economics develops and lawyers set to work implementing the massive HITECH and PPACA legislation passed in 2009 and 2010. The stage is now set for a distinctive law of “health information” to emerge, as third party payers and government use their leverage in the sector to tamp down counterproductive IP- and contract-based corporate strategies.

The law of health information is neither more “open” nor more “closed” than information law generally. Free access should be dictated in areas of extreme personal or societal need; in other cases, it may be right to force high payments, either ex ante via taxes, or ex post via high prices, from those with the ability to pay. Privacy should play a far more important role here than it does in the usual Wild West of internet data collection and processing. But once data is truly anonymized, the research imperative for access is perhaps more pressing than in any other area of law (except, perhaps, national security.).

For a recent controversy where laws of copyright seem inappropriate in a medical setting, check out this story:

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, after thirty years of silence, authors of a standard clinical psychiatric bedside test have issued take down orders of new medical research. Doctors who use copies of the bedside test which will have been printed in some of their oldest medical textbooks are liable to be sued for up to $150,000. . . . [E]ven the ghosts of positively ancient abandoned copyrights for the very simplest of ideas can be used to block new medical work through legal bullying.

The “thirty years” of silence part makes me want to look into a laches claim. The simplicity of the test also seems to invite a merger defense. On the other hand, perhaps the best answer is compulsory licensing, which should have gotten more attention during the SOPA/PIPA flap. Whatever solution is optimal, the implication of the NEJM piece is clear: health professionals believe their field deserves some autonomy from the normal laws of intellectual property. Popular reaction against secret prices of medical devices and hospital procedures also reflects that view.

In many areas, such rebellions against pricing the priceless have translated into general skepticism about intellectual property. In health care, they may lead to something different: a health information law distinct from the IP and privacy laws of general application.

An eminence grise of cyberlaw once told me that he got into the field in the 1980s because it was one of the few areas where things were “up for grabs” enough that a creative scholar could still have an influence. An elder statesman of the IP field told me that it had gone into “normal science” mode as of 2004 or so. Perhaps those who still want “paradigm shifts” need to work heavily regulated fields like health information law, where government policymakers are more regulators for (rather than instruments of) vendors and providers.