When all genes are patented, will we technically be owed by the companies holding the patents?

The idea of ownership is ubiquitous. Title deeds establish and protect ownership of our houses, while security of property is as important to the proprietors of Tesco and Sainsbury’s as it is to their customers. However, there is a profound problem when it comes to so-called intellectual property (IP) – which requires a strong lead from government, and for which independent advice has never been more urgently required. The David Nutt affair has illustrated very well the importance of objective analysis of complex social issues.

The myth is that IP rights are as important as our rights in castles, cars and corn oil. IP is supposedly intended to encourage inventors and the investment needed to bring their products to the clinic and marketplace. In reality, patents often suppress invention rather than promote it: drugs are “evergreened” when patents are on the verge of running out – companies buy up the patents of potential rivals in order to prevent them being turned into products. Moreover, the prices charged, especially for pharmaceuticals, are often grossly in excess of those required to cover costs and make reasonable profits.

IP rights are beginning to permeate every area of scientific endeavour. Even in universities, science and innovation, which have already been paid for out of the public purse, are privatised and resold to the public via patents acquired by commercial interests. The drive to commercialise science has overtaken not only applied research but also “blue-skies” research, such that even the pure quest for knowledge is subverted by the need for profit.

For example, it is estimated that some 20% of individual human genes have been patented already or have been filed for patenting. As a result, research on certain genes is largely restricted to the companies that hold the patents, and tests involving them are marketed at prohibitive prices. We believe that this poses a very real danger to the development of science for the public good.

  1. tcc3 says:

    Seems like there should be an argument for about 6 billion examples of prior art.

  2. tdkyo says:

    Wouldn’t proponents of Intelligent Design be up and arms about this?

  3. bobbo, the pragmatic libertarian Existentialist says:

    Just a very good example of whether or not the “rules” of society should be set up to benefit society or to benefit a very narrow segment of society aka “business.” So many of our laws are set up for business rather than society. Look at medicine in general for instance. Is our medical system set up to provide health care or to provide profits for businesses of various sorts?

    If you see the serious down side to the businessfication of IP as it relates to the Human Genome, will you be willing to also see it in general medicine? Broadband accessibility? Education?

    All sorts of things.

  4. sargasso_c says:

    A good article. Pretty much covers all the bases. States that resist the monopoly of patentable information are being isolated by “trade blocks”.

  5. Norman Speight says:

    Watched an interview with the CEO of Guest Keen Nettlefolds on the BBC News a couple of nights ago 12th or 13th I believe of June). Seems that they are making injections for pneumonia etc available at cost for third world children. Itself, on the surface, a laudible move which I would be the last to condemn or criticise. However.
    Right at the beginning of the interview, this person disclosed that one injection could sell – was selling – “…for between $50 in many areas and up to $100 in others…Our cost of production being some 2.1/2 dollars.” I DO realise that there are ‘research’ costs (fully tax deductable of course), also that most never make it to market and are thus a dead loss. However, when this is considered in the light of actual declared profit, they do seem to be doing rather well – don’t they!

  6. bobbo, the pragmatic libertarian Existentialist says:

    In related news, you aren’t allowed to lip-synch a song and upload it to YouTube.


    And under the “theory” of copyright law, just as in patent law, that is exactly the right outcome. No deminimus threshold.

    “All your freedoms are our profit stream.”

  7. tcc3 says:

    #6 Fair use should be a lot broader than it is now. Non commercial purposes should not be attacked. Trouble is even the narrow Fair Use we have now is only defensible if you can pay to fight it.

    The record industry’s idea of “Fair Use” is listening to your Sony&copy Walkman&copy at the carnival.

  8. msbpodcast says:

    Well, that’s actually very good.

    As soon as a genetic component to a disease is found, we know who we can sue. (Remember what Spiderman’s uncle always said: With great power comes great responsibility. :-)

    It doesn’t matter that they would argue that it was a pre-existing condition, we could sue them for having the disease. We don’t want THEIR lousy gene(s) in our body.

  9. EnemyOfTheState says:

    So now I know who to file my suit for TU-183 cancer against.

  10. The Pirate says:

    I’m sending Monsanto a reoccurring bill for the care and upkeep of their property I am forced to maintain.

  11. JimD says:

    I don’t think so. Patents allow the Patent Holder to prevent others from profiting from commercial use, so private use – in your own body – could not be infringement ! I think !

  12. LibertyLover says:

    Technically, the gene itself isn’t patented. The “process” of isolating and using it is. As these isolated genes cannot occur naturally, they fall under the “man-made” heading.

    Think of a new process to produce titanium in half the time. The material isn’t patented (nor even the raw materials), but that money-making process is.

    The line is indeed fine, but distinct.

  13. tcc3 says:

    #12 You cant patent just a process, and if you do, the restrictions are pretty specific (tied to a machine, device or invention)


    Do not know if the case above meets that criteria. But we won’t find out without millions in legal fees.

    It would be nice if the patent/copyright laws didn’t boil down to “whoever has the most expensive lawyer is correct”

  14. LibertyLover says:

    #13, Hmm. Transformations are covered according to the article so I suppose they are labeling the transformation of a naturally occurring gene sequence into a something else.

    I agree on the millions remark. I was told at one time that the law doesn’t matter. It’s the argument in court that does.

  15. dcphill says:

    My genes are mine and those of my predecessors and without licence they are not the property of anybody else. I alone can grant fair use.
    If industry or business or science want to use my genes I alone can profit, others may not.

  16. Glenn E. says:

    Not just drugs. Think of all that aerospace tech, that got funded by taxpayer dollars, via the DoD and NASA. And yet all the private contractors being subsidized this way. Get to retain full IP rights of anything they make. No matter who they’re working for. YET! If a citizen works for them, and comes up with some invention on their own. Said company can claim the IP rights of whatever, belongs to them. That is if they’re at all interested. And these days, they probably can’t afford not to be. As they were back when the Apple I was first invented. Wozniak had to present it to his employer, for first refusal. Luckily they only saw it as some damn toy. And the Woz didn’t dress it up, as it would later become.

    The same goes for Xerox who funded the GUI development that Apple MAC, and later Windows, would adopt. So the IP of that tech became the life blood of Apple, Microsoft, and others. Think what would have happened had Xerox gotten all stingy over who could have a GUI, other than to run a photocopier. They could have kept the whole PC industry stuck in the 8bit era. Thankfully, they cut GUI loose.

    But that’s probably a rare exception. Don’t expect any more of that generosity and wisdom to happen again, for a long time.

  17. Buzz Mega says:

    Unlike Arnold, if anybody duplicates me, I’m suing.

  18. Mr. Fusion says:

    Not every country follows American patents. Ontario, Canada, has publicly stated that gene patents are invalid there. The European Union has also watered down several patents and patent protection. India and China have always had a problem with other nations patents.

  19. Ben says:

    If you’re lucky, you will die before subversion of the power of We The People is completed by corporate cash. Our kids – guess they’re on their own.