Live long and prosper? How longer lifespans will impact IP

Live long and prosper? How longer lifespans will impact IP

More people are living for longer, and lifespans are expected to increase even further in the next few years. Yet we are only beginning to grasp the implications of this fundamental change for the way we live, work and find fulfilment. As societies around the world tackle the issues raised by longer lives, the impact of technology and innovation will be as important as a focus on self-care and wellbeing. We explore what this means for research, IP protection and policy questions.

An ageing population

People are living longer than ever before. It is estimated that the global average life expectancy more than doubled during the 20th century, and is now over 70 years. According to the WHO, 1 in 6 people in the world will be 60 or over by 2030. By 2050, the number of people aged 60 or older will double while the number aged 80 or older will triple.

The advances in lifespan have been driven by improvements in sanitation and nutrition, particularly in the developing world, as well as by significant medical advances: widespread vaccination, better diagnosis and treatment of many diseases, safer and more advanced surgery and the development of devices from stents to electric wheelchairs.

But as average lifetimes stretch into the 80s, 90s and beyond, attention will increasingly be paid not just to extending life but to the quality of life. And that is likely to influence technology, business and even the law.

The science of living longer

Longer lives will continue to have a huge impact on the development of medicine in the form of research for treatments, or even cures, for diseases that particularly afflict the elderly, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, as well as investment in procedures and equipment to improve standards of living, such as transplants and replacement joints.

Looking further ahead, research in fields such as stem cells and genome editing offer the potential to extend lifespans even further. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine promise the possibility of repairing damaged or decayed limbs and organs – keeping us not only alive but active – while research in fertility offers the scope for more choice about when and how to have children.

But methods for creating, sustaining and even ending life will also raise moral questions that the patent system may have to confront. “Patent offices are often called on to address ethical issues because they are the first bodies to deal with new technologies,” says Gwilym Roberts, Chair of Kilburn & Strode. “In future, there may have to be more collaboration between IP agencies and other regulatory or ethics bodies.”

Going hand in hand with this, it is important to also consider some of the research trends in life sciences and how they are influenced by the shift to an older population.

All aspects of life and work will be affected

Healthcare is by no means the only area where an older society will have an impact. In a subsequent article in this series, we will look at how longer lives might affect technology and research priorities, and where opportunities might exist. For example:

  • Cosmetics and personal care: the anti-ageing market is expected to boom – what does this mean for developers of cosmetics and personal care products?

  • Accommodation: will new types of buildings have to be developed to house older people (living alone or in communities) with appropriate facilities? Technologies to improve access, security and accessibility (including remote monitoring) are likely to be essential to new developments, whether residential or commercial/public.

  • Transport and travel: older people are generally less mobile. New means of transport and devices will need to be developed, incorporating assistive technology and safety features. Infrastructure may also have to be rethought with new systems to improve access and usability.

  • Nutrition: Demand for food will increase with population growth, but there will also be a need for healthy options, as well as more food that can accommodate specialist diets. There is also likely to be innovation in the way food is packaged and delivered.

  • Lifestyle: What are we all going to do with ourselves in older age, particularly after retirement? Will new sports and activities be developed to keep us active without putting health at risk? Technology could play a big role here in replicating the experience of going out to sports or cultural events in a virtual, or assisted, reality format.

  • Communication: 5G-connected devices promise many benefits for older people, including remote health tracking and high-quality video communication. But what specific apps and tools will need to be developed to promote accessibility through voice recognition, image recognition, sensory interaction etc? Will we send the end of QWERTY?

  • Energy and environment: Longer lives mean a greater drain on the Earth’s resources so what technologies will be needed to address that and what potential energy sources can we tap? How can we minimize the high carbon footprint of older people?


Policy and practice

Increasing lifespans also have an impact on policy questions, most obviously in the extension of the retirement age in many developed countries into the late 60s or even 70s, and the consequent postponement of pension entitlement. Will they also have an impact on IP policy?

There may be more debates about what is a fair length of protection. On one hand is the argument that terms should be increased to ensure inventors/creators are rewarded in their lifetime (the existing 20-year patent term dates from a time when working lives were much shorter). On the other hand, should copyright be capped or even reduced? A term of 70 years beyond the author’s life means that a composer who writes a successful song aged 20 and lives to 100 benefits from 150 years of protection.

IP norms may also have to respond to changes in the nature of research, says Gwilym: “You might expect that as researchers live longer they are more likely to collaborate and also more likely to work in different sectors, as they have more time to study. The spark of genius is something that is often associated with young people – let’s not extinguish that.” The workforce will also be more diverse: it will be increasingly common to have sabbaticals and even to have two or more careers in a lifetime.

Such demographic shifts could affect how we define fundamental IP concepts, such as the skilled person/team, average consumer and informed user. In a world where people’s interaction with brands may increasingly be mediated through technology such as voice assistants and automated recommendations, do we need to rethink trade mark terms such as “graphic representation”, or place more weight on visual rather than verbal comparisons?

Finally, there will be implications for IP practitioners. With working lives becoming longer, how will career patterns change? Will more time be spent in education and training or in career breaks? Will there be more alternatives to partnership, such as consultancy and teaching, or more portfolio careers?

These practical and policy questions will be addressed in the final article in this series.

Philosophers and religious thinkers throughout time have speculated about eternal life. In the 21st century, however, for the first time we’re facing the reality of lifespans that significantly exceed the historical norm – throughout the world, not just in a few developed countries. While the change may seem gradual, the impact will be significant. We can’t ignore the fundamental questions that arise, including for IP, and need to start planning now how we will address them

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