Good news of sorts on the patent front. After decades of expansive interpretations of patent law to include patents on pretty much anything, including life, knowledge and ideas; after decades of governments supporting expansion of intellectual property protections for the benefit of corporations, we have a small step in the other direction.

In two recent, rulings the conservative US Supreme Court has limited the scope of patents, rejecting patents on metabolite levels and DNA sequences, holding that these exist in nature and are not subject to patent.

As a result, the US Patent office has issued new draft guidelines that state patentable inventions must be ‘significantly different’ from any natural product.

Not surprisingly, the biotech industry is having a fit. They claim that there will be no drugs, there will be no more innovation. Thousands will die. One biotech company rep claimed that half the drugs developed between 1981 and 2010 would never have seen the light of day if this new rule had been in effect.

In his book Science Mart, Phillip Mirowski reviews the claim made by the pharmaceutical sector that patents are the foundation of innovation and finds that the data suggests just the opposite. They have reduced innovation, in part because they restrict access to information, techniques and methods. ‘Me too’ drugs – drugs that are reformulations of existing drugs – have become the primary ‘innovation’ in drugs, but desperately needed new drugs are not being developed.

Already, the biotech sector is trying to convince the US Patent Office that the Supreme Court decisions have only narrow application. It would be surprising if the rules aren’t weakened in light of the history of the pharmaceutical industry’s influence, but maybe for the moment we can enjoy the irony of a strongly right wing Supreme Court, ideologically aligned with free market extremism, actually limiting the power of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.


Source:  Check-Hayden, E. (2014) Biotech reels over patent ruling: Firms fight for the right to patent natural products and processes, Nature, 511:138