Saturday, December 22, 2012

From "Frivolous" to the Supreme Court

A few years ago I got lucky, in a way. In 2006 I worked as a fellow at the Yale Center for Bioethics and wrote what came to be published as Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes (Wiley-Blackwell 2009). A few months after it was released, the ACLU helped spearhead a lawsuit against Myriad Genetics for their patents over the BRCA1 and 2 genes. My incredibly lucky timing catapulted me into an important international debate about the patent-eligibility of isolated but otherwise unmodified genes in a way I never anticipated. In the process, I took a lot of heat. Everyone who has spoken up against the practice of seeking and granting patents on genes has taken heat from IP-maximalists, typically patent attorneys, for whom the unimpeded expectation of being able to apply for a patent on nearly everything is an important source of income. Looking back on the headlines in those blogs that decried the lawsuit and books and articles like mine is telling. The lawsuit was called "frivolous," a heady charge for attorneys who can be sanctioned personally for taking part in cases that have no merit. I was called a liar, as have others. We were alleged to neither understand the law nor understand the science. Since then, both scientists and lawyers, including patent attorneys, have chimed in on the side of the ACLU, but no matter.

At the time I was taken aback. I had expressed a point of view that was backed, I felt and argued, by both the law and reason. I believed and argued that claims (the part of the patent that specifies what is monopolized) encompassed parts of nature, despite the allegations by patent professionals and a string of case dictum that "isolation" equaled invention. The arguments in both the court case and my book, and popping up regularly in articles and now other books, were not lies. They were points of view based upon reasoned arguments. The lawsuit, it turns out, was not frivolous. In fact, the Supreme Court will now grapple with it. It is important, it seems, to the highest court in the U.S.

At the time I found myself defending my work against those who resorted (and still do) to attacking me rather than countering my arguments, I had no clue what motivated the vitriol and attempts to personally smear me. I made the mistake of lashing out. I should have been more patient. Time, it seems, and the strength of good reason is also a powerful weapon. The principals at the ACLU and the named plaintiffs in the case have taken much abuse too, and they have a personal stake in the lawsuit. Soon, the Supreme Court will hear and consider arguments, and amicus (friend of the court) briefs will be submitted by parties on various sides. In the past couple years, in cases like Bilski and Prometheus, similar vitriol has been lobbed at the Supreme Court for reining in the IP-maximalists, and limiting the realm of patentability in rational ways. Recently, some have argued that the Supreme Court is simply not qualified to deal with the issue of patents. This by the same people who like to remind us that intellectual property laws have some basis in the Constitution. The highest constitutional court is, of course, the Supreme Court, and their role is to interpret all our federal laws in light of the Constitution.

I don't know what the Supreme Court will do, but it is heartening to know that there are others who believe this is an important issue, grounded in real logical and legal concerns, with room for argument, and compelling and uncertain enough to warrant the Supreme Court's attention and decision. My heartfelt thanks go to those who have fought the actual hard fight, and got the case as far as it has gone, and have endured worse attacks, steadfastly promoted arguments that many of us feel are correct, and sought real change. I am honored to be in good company, and now bear no ill will toward any of those who have sought to diminish me or my arguments. What matters is commitment, and honesty, and what will decide the day in the courts will be some sort of reason. Whichever side does not prevail should be held in no contempt. We must recognize that those on both sides (or perhaps there is a spectrum since I originally argued for a very moderate view, in my opinion, in which cDNA, for instance, was patent eligible), should be honored for making fair arguments, based on precedent and reason, for honest purposes.

May reason prevail.

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