Sunday, October 31, 2010

No more Natural Gene Patents!

Via Blag Hag comes the welcome news that the federal government has issued a nonbinding legal brief saying that corporations should not be able to patent genes that occur naturally in humans and other animals. It's not legally binding, so it's uncertain whether the Patent Office will enforce it, and there's still other issues that need to be dealt with. But, it's a huge step in the right direction, and it represents a pretty big change in policy.

Basically, for years, companies have been able to patent human genes. That's right, someone could claim all legal rights to a piece of DNA that occurs in millions of humans - or everyone, just because they were the first to isolate it. That's like claiming exclusive rights to providing a new species to zoos, just because you discovered it, or claiming a royalty on all jewelry that includes a mineral your discovered. It meant that other companies and frequently research universities could not do research on that gene without getting sued.

The brief does say, though, that artificial manipulations of genes should still be able to be patented. This is both good and bad. Good, because it provides an incentive to not only discover genes, but do beneficial research on them. Bad, because it could still stifle important medical research. Also, companies that genetically modify plants have a nasty habit of maliciously suing small farmers who have had GM seeds drift into their field from nearby fields. Which, legally defensible or not, is just plain wrong.

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