The Morality of Compulsory Licensing as an Access to Medicines Tool

31 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2018

See all articles by Margo A. Bagley

Margo A. Bagley

Emory University School of Law; University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: May 31, 2018


Drug prices are soaring in rich and poor countries and are reducing access to medicines for many people who need them the most. Nevertheless, efforts by governments, activists, scholars, and others to reduce costs through mechanisms such as compulsory licenses routinely meet with censure at the hubris of even considering harm to the goose that lays the golden eggs of new medical breakthroughs and life-saving treatments, with such efforts often being labeled as “theft.”

This Article examines the biblical origins of theft rhetoric in relation to pharmaceutical patents and compulsory licenses. It explores the broad context of Judeo-Christian prohibitions on theft to provide a richer, more nuanced, and more accurate understanding of the appropriateness and wisdom of limits on pharmaceutical patents to enhance access to medicines in the United States and beyond. Using the biblical analogy of pe’ah, it allows us to begin to reframe the compulsory licensing discussion and ask who is really “stealing” from whom.

Keywords: compulsory licenses, access to medicines, commandments, Judeo-Christian, pharmaceuticals, patents

Suggested Citation

Bagley, Margo A., The Morality of Compulsory Licensing as an Access to Medicines Tool (May 31, 2018). Minnesota Law Review, Forthcoming; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

Margo A. Bagley (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-8293 (Phone)
404-727-6820 (Fax)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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