Tuesday, April 16, 2013

JUSTICE KAGAN: "And the PTO seems very patent happy"

I love that quote from Justice Kagan because it pinpoints the root of the issue. She said it when Myriad's attorney tried to justify the practice of patenting isolated genes by referring to the Patent and Trademark Office's past practice of doing so. She is right, and that office, run as it is by patent attorneys, much like the CAFC is dominated by them, is a poor guide for what ought to be the case. They are "patent happy." (see, e.g., the Peanut Butter Sandwich patent).

One should never try to predict what the Supreme Court will do in any given situation. Nonetheless, a brief analysis of the transcript of the oral argument in the Myriad case is revealing. The Justices seem inclined to hold in a way that readers of this blog will be familiar with: isolation of a gene is not enough, only changing the gene suffices to make it patentable. The questioning from the Court right from the start revealed their discomfort with the current "isolation" regime, which is unsurprising in light of their recent decision in Prometheus.

Mr. Hansen did an excellent job in his argument, under some difficult questioning, steering the discussion back to the question of whether a product of nature, merely isolated, should be eligible under Section 101. He cited all the best examples, arguments, and precedent. He also conceded as he should that recombinant DNA is eligible, and that the patents at issue in the Myriad case are not recombinant. He also left the door open for the Justices to do as they seem inclined to do, and follow the lead of the Solicitor General, ruling that the isolated genes alone are ineligible subject matter but that cDNA is. This is also the position I have maintained all along in my book and since. The attorney for Myriad had a tougher time of it, and the questioning of the Justices seemed to have him in a corner a couple times. Instead of recapping the arguments, I urge you read them yourself here. Also, I am providing links to some excellent in-depth and plain English analyses here, at Patently-O and at ScotusBlog. What I wish to do here is highlight sections from my book that made the same argument that seems likely to win the day, a conservative position I have maintained all along, arguing that mere isolation is insufficient to warrant patent, that some degree of intention (and design) is necessary to make something inventive, and that while engineered genes ought to be patent eligible, isolated genes alone ought not to be. Here are some relevant passages:

"Each instance of the un-engineered human genome is a naturally occurring object. Its existence as an abstracted ideal which is instantiated in you, me, and every other human, in its present form has no element of the type of expression described above. There is no mixing of labor with any present human genome’s form, nor is there any human intention involved." (Who Owns You? p. 111-12)
"All copyrightable and patentable objects are intentionally produced man-made objects and they are not merely ideas. Your DNA, or mine, or any other non-engineered being, is not an expression according to this description of intellectual property, and neither is any naturally-occurring subset of a genome (such as a gene or a SNP)." (Ibid, p. 112)
"Chemical formulas, for example, or natural laws, cannot be copyrighted or patented. The seminal Supreme Court case Diamond v. Diehr, specifically excluded from patentability “laws of nature, natural phenomenon and abstract ideas.” (Ibid, p. 113)
"Many gene patents are perfectly valid both legally and ethically. All valid patents use products of nature in some form, but they do not extend to protect the naturally-occurring parts of the invention. Most patents on new chemicals involve not just a patent on the new compound, but also a patent on the process of synthesizing the compound.These sorts of patents provide guidance for how gene patents can legally issue and still also promote innovation. New genes could of course be patented if they are man-made. New combinations of genes can also be patented if they are the products of human intention." (Ibid, p. 114)
"Many gene patents issue now in which the current use of the gene is in merely finding the same gene. This is quite absurd. It is like patenting the element iron, and then claiming that the use of iron is in finding iron, or patenting the Rock of Gibraltar and then claiming that the utility of the patent is in locating the Rock of Gibraltar." (Ibid., p. 115)

I quote these sections because they show that the arguments I made anticipated the same ones made in the Myriad case which began a couple months after my book was published. These same arguments have been to a large degree echoed by the questioning of the Justices. Together with Myths About Who Owns You the past year at least has demonstrated just how conservative my arguments have been and how they echo the thinking of at least some Supreme Court Justices as well as precedent, and that perhaps initial claims about how wildly inaccurate, off-base, or whacky my arguments were, were themselves wildly inaccurate, whacky and off-base, or perhaps merely ideologically-motivated.

Now of course, the Court may still rule that all gene patents are just fine, but at least I take comfort in having my arguments made in public court, in language and with examples similar to that I used in 2006 when I first confronted these issues from a philosophical perspective. I'm comforted that now my arguments seem firmly in the mainstream and persuasive to many if not all.


Arthur Gershman said...

Justice Kagan's remarks suggest a new motto for the USPTO:
"Patent Happy since 1790"

David Koepsell said...

indeed, and as you point out, it's the patent-biotech academic complex (or however we wish to call it) that manufactures an inevitable predisposition to broaden the realm of patenting... because it pays the bills, largely, and the foxes are tending the chicken coop ... so to speak