Needless to say, this story is rather a big deal.
By Andrew Pollack, for the NYT: U.S. Says Genes Should Not Be Eligible for Patents
Reversing a longstanding policy, the federal government said on Friday that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. The new position could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.
The new position was declared in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Department of Justice late Friday in a case involving two human genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer….
In essence, the new position is based on the idea that genes are naturally-occurring, and hence not inventions in the sense required by patent law.
However, the government suggested such a change would have limited impact on the biotechnology industry because man-made manipulations of DNA, like methods to create genetically modified crops or gene therapies, could still be patented. Dr. James P. Evans, a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of North Carolina, who headed a government advisory task force on gene patents, called the government’s brief “a bit of a landmark, kind of a line in the sand.”
Interestingly (or at least interestingly to philosophers and law professors), this is roughly in line with a Lockean theory of property, according to which something in nature can be claimed as property only once one has ‘mixed one’s labour’ with it.