Strange Bedfellows: Native American Tribes, Big Pharma, and the Legitimacy of Their Alliance


Lost in the cacophony surrounding the debate about high drug prices is the fundamental principle that pharmaceutical innovation will not occur without the prospect of outsized returns enabled through market exclusivity. Biopharmaceutical patents are currently under siege, subject to challenge both in inter partes review (“IPR”) proceedings and in Hatch-Waxman actions. These twin assaults threaten to eliminate the incentives necessary for biotechnological innovation—particularly for discoveries made upstream in the innovation pipeline—thus imperiling the development of new drug therapies. But a fascinating solution has emerged: invoking tribal immunity to shield pharmaceutical patents from IPR before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”). This serves two critically important objectives: promoting tribal self-sufficiency, and encouraging investment in life-saving and life-improving new drugs. Contractual partnerships between Native American tribes and pharmaceutical companies not only provide the tribes with a steady stream of royalty revenue, but also insulate biopharmaceutical patents from challenge in IPR proceedings through the invocation of long-established principles of tribal sovereign immunity. This Note is the first piece of scholarship to comprehensively analyze, and advocate for, the right to invoke tribal sovereign immunity in IPR proceedings.