In patent law, they have a saying: the name of the game is the claim. And when it comes to patenting the naturally occurring elements of plants, the human body and other living things, patent lawyers have shown themselves to be highly ingenious in making their claims. Their goal, of course, is to own any knowledge about nature that is needed by lots of people and can be sold. Patent law lets companies establish artificial chokepoints over knowledge that should belong to all of us, giving the “owner” the right to charge a toll and stifle potential competition.
This trend got its start in 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court first allowed the patenting of lifeforms in the Chakrabarty case, which allowed the patenting of microorganisms. That in turn opened the floodgates to the patenting of genes, plants, bioengineered crops, and much else. Harvard University famously owns the patent of a specially bred mouse for cancer experiments, the “onco-mouse.” There is much to be said for the fruits of biotech research, but there is also much to be lamented and condemned as far as the needless privatization of knowledge and stifling of competition and innovation.
Now it seems as if the tide could be turning against the patenting of nature The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled unanimously that a diagnostic medical test that determines levels of metabolites in a person’s blood (in order to administer the proper dosage of a class of drugs known as thiopurines) cannot be patented. The case, Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, arose when the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota decided to develop its own metabolite diagnostic test and stop buying the Prometheus product. Prometheus sued, saying that the Mayo Clinic’s self-devised diagnostic test violated its patent. The Mayo Clinic responded that no one can own basic knowledge about human physiology and nature.