Intended for healthcare professionals


European Commission’s proposals on trade secrets

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 11 March 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1369
  1. Martin McKee, professor of European public health1,
  2. Ronald Labonté, Canada research chair in globalization and health equity2
  1. 1London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1H 9SH, UK
  2. 2University of Ottawa, Canada
  1. Correspondence to: M McKee martin.mckee{at}

Risk undermining public health and must be modified

In late 2013 the European Commission published proposals to harmonise elements of existing national legislation on trade secrets.1 These will shortly be debated in the European parliament but, in their present form, they have created serious concerns among non-governmental organisations concerned with health policy.2

Strengthening protection against disclosure of trade secrets is the most recent step in a process whereby multinational corporations have increasingly sought to commodify knowledge. Thus, the drug industry has lobbied to strengthen the protection given to it by the patent system—for example, by persuading governments to increase the duration of protection for so called orphan drugs3 and using international trade negotiations to enable it to claim rights in previously unprotected markets such as India. A diverse range of industries has exploited the opportunities provided by transfer pricing, whereby operations selling a trademarked commodity in one country pay large sums to another part of the same corporation based in a low tax jurisdiction for the right to use the brand name and associated imagery.4

The arguments in favour of such arrangements are well rehearsed. Patent law gives corporations rights over intellectual property …

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