Guest Post: Patents in Islamic Law

Professor Tabrez Y. Ebrahim is visiting at Iowa Law this semester, where he’s teaching Cybercrime & Security and Entrepreneurship Law & Ethics.  His research interests are broad, and he recently completed a comparative work examining patents in Islamic law.  Below he offers a synopsis of his work.

Companies and law firms with a transnational presence in Islamic countries should recognize that patents may present different considerations in countries with less secular legal systems. Islamic law has primacy in Islamic countries that comprise nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. Many of these countries are members of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which excludes from patentability certain inventions that offend morality in that society. As Islamic countries have begun to embrace patents in recent decades, theories of patents have presented conceptual and theological debates under classical Islamic law, including for construing patentable subject matter and assessing patent infringement.

Patents in Islamic Law present religious considerations that are unique compared to U.S. patent law. First, there are tensions between intellectual property and Islamic law, which is silent on the permissibility of intangibles yet allows for their interpretation. Second, justifications for patents within Islamic law present ethical and morality considerations based on religious limitations that present public policy choices of patentable subject matter and the ordre public meaning of TRIPS Article 27.2 . Third, public interest should be a consideration not only in terms of a potential harm to plaintiff (who is seeking injunctive relief or preventing importation of an infringing article) in the patent infringement context, but also in terms of justification of patents in an Islamic legal system.

In my recent article, Intellectual Property Through a Non-Western Lens: Patents in Islamic Law, I explain these considerations, analyze why and how patents uncomfortably fit within a religious body of law, and provide a new perspective to the patent law community. The tensions of patents within Islamic law arise since Islamic legal systems are based on Shariah, which considers divine law as encompassing and guiding all aspects of human life, yet allowing for interpretation through fiqh, or human understanding of the divine law.  Below, I briefly summarize my observations and conclusions.

First, Islamic law does not explicitly recognize patents. In addition, there are complexities within Islamic law that impose a prohibition or limitations on patents: (1) one school of Islamic jurisprudence has traditionally required physical possession of a property right; and (2) some scholars have argued patents create monopolistic effects contrary to an Islamic vision of patents. In the article, I provide justifications and reasoning as to how patents can be implicitly derived within Islamic law by drawing upon its secondary sources of law, provide a framework and justifications for their recognition within Islamic law, and describe the gradual change in interpretation of property to include intellectual property within Islamic law.

Second, while recognizing that patentable subject matter is rife with indeterminacy in the U.S, I suggest that it is a social policy choice that that has yet to be molded in Islamic countries. In particular, ethically and morally controversial inventions should be excluded from patentability in Islamic legal systems, which I argue should have initial flagging of such inventions in the patent examination process and should be assessed by my proposed Patent Shariah Board (an independent board of specialized jurists that direct, review, and supervise Islamic jurisprudence pertaining to patents). As such, patent offices in Islamic legal systems should have a diminished role for assessment of patentable subject matter, which would require flagging (but not thorough evaluation) by patent examiners in such countries. Moreover, the interpretation of ordre public meaning of TRIPS Article 27.2 should have differential treatment among Islamic countries based on the underlying Islamic school of jurisprudence and by the degree of primary of religious law.

Third, I suggest that patent infringement, which is in a nascent and unclear state in Islamic legal systems, presents unique considerations in comparison to the U.S. patent system. I argue that public interest, which is a key consideration in Islamic law, is of greater importance in determining sufficient harm in patent infringement than in U.S. patent law (while also serves to provide a justification for patents within Islamic law).

In sum, while justifying patents within Islamic law, I provide theoretically and theologically sound justifications for patents in an Islamic legal system, while I reason that the reach of patents is narrower than in western legal systems due to more prominent morality, ethics, and public interest considerations. In developing the fiqh (or human interpretation of divine law) of patents, I develop a conceptual framework for patents in Islamic law, while recognizing limitations and institutional design for their administration. This project is part of a longer-term research project that seeks to compare the existing U.S. patent system with patents in Islamic law (including similarities between the systems and unique aspects of each system), and provide insights into how companies and law firms seeking to have a transnational patent presence can operate within nations that follow Islamic law.

Read the full article here on SSRN or the Georgia State University Law Review website.

Tabrez Y. Ebrahim is a law professor and a registered U.S. patent attorney. He is an Associate Professor of Law at California Western School of Law, a Scholar at George Mason University’s Center for Intellectual Property x Innovation Policy, a Senior Cyber Law Researcher at William & Mary Law School’s Center for Legal & Court Technology, an Ostrom Visiting Scholar at Indiana University, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Nebraska.