Patents on Life

Background - 30 September, 2004
Biological diversity is undergoing a dangerous wave of privatisation under the label of "intellectual property rights," through the patenting of plants, animals, genes and smaller parts of DNA.

Dolly sheep protest against patents on life at office for European patents.

Patents are government guarantees that provide an inventor with exclusive rights to use, sell or manufacture an invention for a set period of time. A patent is usually granted for 20 years.

Patents should be granted only to human inventions, not discoveries. Existing living organisms - plants and animals as well as their genes - are no-one's invention and should therefore never be patented and put under private control.

However, over the past decades patents on plants and animals as well as genes and parts of human bodies have been repeatedly granted by the patent offices of industrialised countries.

Patenting of GE organisms allows industry to take control of and exploit common organisms and genetic material as exclusive private property that can be sold to or withheld from farmers, breeders, scientists and doctors. Technology agreements and fees on seeds, facilitated by patents, deprive farmers of their generations-old right to freely replant and exchange their seeds.

Vast, unsubstantiated patent claims on DNA also deter scientists from research in areas that have already been claimed by big companies with large legal budgets.

Why is it legal to patent genes?

Until recently, it was not possible to patent living organisms, which were always regarded as discoveries of nature and therefore unpatentable. In 1980, however, this all changed. In the landmark case of Diamond versus Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled that a living organism, a bacterium that could digest oil, could be patented.

Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that the "relevant distinction is not between animate and inanimate things but whether living products could be seen as human-made inventions". This extraordinary decision by the US Supreme Court heralded a new era in which living organisms could be patented, and paved the way for the enclosure of the biological commons.

Once a shared heritage, the gene pool of plants, animals and humans was now a commodity waiting to be bought and sold.

How does it work?

In what the industry calls 'bioprospecting' and others call 'biopiracy' scouts are sent to remote tropical areas to seek out valuable organisms or plants, often drawing upon the wisdom of indigenous peoples.

They then take samples back to laboratories where they isolate active ingredients or genetic sequences and patent them as their own inventions. Traditional knowledge systems and the people who have cultivated biodiversity over thousands of years count for less in patent law than routine laboratory procedures.

Communities could now end up having to pay multinational corporations for the right to use something that was previously part of their legacy.

Greenpeace opposes all patents on genes, plants, humans and parts of the human body and regards the biodiversity of this planet the common heritage of humankind.

For more information read: The True Cost of Gene Patents