“Environmentalism and the rethinking of intellectual property,” Prof. Mario Biagioli, 4 December 2009

Prof. Biogioli began his lecture by describing the patenting of the oncomouse, a genetically modified mouse used as a “tool” in cancer research. Concerns over the ethics of patenting living things aside, this struck me as an interesting and disturbing trend in scientific discovery. Not only are the final products of the research patented, in this case anti-cancer drugs, but also the methods whereby these discoveries are made. In this age of increased concerns over environmental problems, such as climate change and fisheries which are by their nature collective action problems, we require scientists to work together as never before. A research environment in which scientists jealously guard the secrets of their methods is antithetical to this end.

In other cases, however, it appears that the method is not important. For example, in the US, when applying for a patent of a new plant line, the breeder does not need to specify the specific techniques used when he or she applies for a patent for a new line. This bypasses what would (could?) otherwise constitute a problem in the differentiation between “invention” and “discovery” – plant breeding depends in large part on natural processes of genetic mutation and recombination, and so in many cases these really are cases of discovery, not invention. Where then does the responsibility for these “inventions/discoveries” lie – is the inventor responsible for her own creation? And how do we consider the products of other human inventions? To take the question to an extreme, how then do we consider climate change, the product of many different human, and perhaps patented, inventions? Is the role of the patent only to protect those who hold it from having their work plagiarized? Where is the mechanism that protects the rest of us from the invention? Presumably, the patenting process is ultimately a tool for meeting the needs of society as a whole. Currently in Canada, there has been ongoing debate over copyright law, which is another, related form of intellectual property protection. Debate has raged because of this very question: ultimately, who is intellectual property law designed to protect, and what is its larger purpose within society? Should it be concerned with only the short term gains of those who hold the rights to intellectual property, or is there a larger, longer-term goal which it should be meeting? What is its ethical mandate, and what are the consequences for local, national and global society if it does not meet this mandate?

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