The history of patenting life

A major philosophical issue that many people have with biotechnology is patents on genes or whole organisms. It seems obvious that a plant, animal, or even bacterium is very different than a new piece of exercise equipment or anything else that might get patented. Should a breeder or geneticist be allowed to profit from his or her work? When thinking about complex subjects like this, it can help to get a little perspective by looking at the history of the subject.
One resource that I often refer back to is a 3 part series on plant patents by Clark Wolf, professor of philosophy at Iowa State University: Plants, Patents, Property, and Pirates. He also has an article on gene patents. As a bioethicist, Clark provides good insight into the issue of patenting life. In addition to these, all of the Bioethics in Brief articles are quite interesting.

Another great resource (and one that’s a little more recent) is by Joe Miller, professor of law at Lewis and Clark Law School. His expertise lies in intellectual property, and that’s what his three part series, hosted at Cooking Up a Story, focuses on.

Do you know of any useful resources for understanding patents on organisms or genes or that question those patents? Share them in the comments.
Thanks to @hyperlocavore for posting about Joe Miller’s articles.


  1. Anastasia,
    Thank you very much for posting these links. Very informative and fascinating. I particularly enjoyed reading the Salon article on cotton “piracy” in Gujarat.
    I wonder if/when someone will smuggle out some super-salmon?
    Although I am personally uncomfortable with these gmo developments, they certainly are great illustrations of possible “black swan” scenarios.

  2. Part I makes some extremely interesting points, which invite the Biblical injunction that the worker is worthy of his hire. But then, up until recently, intellectual work and plant breeding had not been much more than of casual interest — and well before food production (and seed production) had become known as a business enterprise.
    Modern enterprise and modern efforts would seem to demand a different structure from when agriculture was primarily a subsistence effort. So intergenerational comparisons may not be ideal.

  3. Part II makes much of a non-issue. Processes and compositions of matter, etc. in the public domain are rejected as a matter of course by the USPTO. The sole embarrassment is that the Patent Office allows such patent in obvious contravention of existing law, which results from patent examiners being so overworked that they patent ‘the obvious’, when only ‘novel, non-obvious’ things are eligible.

  4. The message of Part III is that “stronger IP rules can result in slower rates of technology transfer, since those who need new technologies often cannot purchase them.”
    The argument is totally confuzzled. If “those who need new technologies often cannot purchase them”, that means something is wrong with the free market. Which, in the case of India and cotton, means the government has stepped in and made a mess of things. No patent owner would intentionally price things so high that the invention cannot be sold.

  5. The article dealing with Patents on Breast Cancer Genes cannot be analyzed upon the terms presented.
    In fact, the breast cancer gene story is sordid and littered with tragedy. Women who mistakenly considered breast cancer genes to be causative of breast cancer underwent radical mastectomies as a supposed ‘preventative measure’, but it turns out, there is no causation, there is merely a mild predisposition.
    Having information is one thing; the important thing is, what you do with that information. What was done with the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes is disgusting and on a par with selling extracts of peach-pits to assuage cancer.
    Charlatanry. Might be profitable, but nonetheless bad. This is entirely a different narrative.

  6. I’m not trying to self-promote, but you may wish to look at my book, Unnatural Selection: Technology, Politics and Plant Evolution, which is something of a sociological history/analysis of IPR laws regarding genetic resources, particularly the Plant Patent Act of 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act. It’s certainly not the “last word” on these subjects, in fact, someone really ought to update and go farther. But, I think you may find it useful, certainly the references!
    All the best,

  7. Dear Cary,
    Any chance of a reprint of Unnatural Selection? I’ve been recommended this several times, but it’s rare as hen’s teeth and £100+ on Amazon. I’m just waiting for the British Library’s copy to arrive but would love a copy of my own.
    All the best,

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