Monday, March 20, 2006

Supreme Court Considers Patents on Thought

On Tuesday of this week the Supreme Court takes up an odd case involving patent rights, and one of the key issues concerns how factual information might make a person "think", and how such reflection and thought could violate the patent. Kinda makes my head hurt to ponder this case,

In short, a company called Metabolite owns the license for a patent on a medical test for homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood, and further, the patent includes the basic biological relationship between this amino acid and vitamin deficiency. Another company, LabCorp, uses a different medical test, but has published information mentioning the the "patented fact" about the biology involved. So far, courts have backed Metabolite on the patent infringement of "thinking" about this fact.

Yeah, OK....

In an essay by Michael Chrichton in the NYTimes, he notes some things I plain did not know and I hope I'm not breaking the law by thinking about this or writing about it:

For example, the human genome exists in every one of us, and is therefore our shared heritage and an undoubted fact of nature. Nevertheless 20 percent of the genome is now privately owned. The gene for diabetes is owned, and its owner has something to say about any research you do, and what it will cost you. The entire genome of the hepatitis C virus is owned by a biotech company. Royalty costs now influence the direction of research in basic diseases, and often even the testing for diseases. Such barriers to medical testing and research are not in the public interest. Do you want to be told by your doctor, "Oh, nobody studies your disease any more because the owner of the gene/enzyme/correlation has made it too expensive to do research?"

"The question of whether basic truths of nature can be owned ought not to be confused with concerns about how we pay for biotech development, whether we will have drugs in the future, and so on. If you invent a new test, you may patent it and sell it for as much as you can, if that's your goal. Companies can certainly own a test they have invented. But they should not own the disease itself, or the gene that causes the disease, or essential underlying facts about the disease."

One example which Chrichton notes is that Einstein did not own the patent on his mathematical theory of the speed of light being constant. But what if he had? What if Newton owned a patent on the idea of gravity? If so, then researchers would have to pay royalties for thinking about them and experimentation based on those ideas.

And that, dear readers, is my concern - is it truly feasible to demand royalties on what you might think about the facts and theories of the natural world and how they relate to each other?

Oh, and there is the already disturbing (to me) law that allows for someone to "own" segments of the Human Genome.


  1. Anonymous10:47 PM

    If anybody owns the genome for my predisposition for pizza, or for my male pattern baldness, they need to come & do some maintenance, cuz that sh*t ain't wired right.

  2. We live in crazy damn times, Joe.

  3. Mutant Monkey - if someone owns it and your body has it, you may OWE THEM royalties!

    Tits - Yes. Yes we are.

  4. OK, so, if I have an IDEA about something, and I talk about it....
    OK, no...
    OK, wait...
    If someone has an idea and I...
    No... wait...
    If I say these folks are full of horse s#1+, then who owes who what?

  5. Everything Bill Gates ever thought up.. I thought it 1st!
    Where's my lawyer??