Patenting genes

How your genes can become another person’s property

Under the present intellectual property laws it is actually possible to patent genes. It is therefore thinkable that your illness could become the property of a company.
Canavan’s disease is a hereditary disorder that affects the nerve cells in the brain. Children who inherit the relevant gene from both parents (who do not themselves suffer from the illness) generally die before the age of four. There is still no cure for the disease but remedies are being sought. Those who wish to participate in this research, though, have to transfer sums of money to the children’s hospital in Miami because that is the hospital that holds the patent for the relevant gene. “But genes are part of nature and should therefore be no organization’s property”, Dr. David Koepsell proclaims. “In other parts of the world it is not possible to patent genes but in the United States that can be done, which means that in practice it can also be enforced elsewhere. Twenty percent of all human genes are therefore now the property of companies or organizations and I maintain that such practices should be prohibited.”
imageIn Koepsell’s book entitled “Who Owns You?” all the relevant arguments are expounded. To his mind genes, just like the radio spectrum, sunlight and air should be viewed as common property. In situations where commodities are scarce governments can grant monopolies, for instance by allocating a certain radio frequency to one channel but essentially everyone should have access to such things.
Koepsell then goes on to apply the same philosophy of openness and wide availability to other facets of intellectual property rights, such as software. “Philosophically software constitutes an interesting problem”, he explains. “In the past there were patents laws or copyrights to provide protection against these kinds of infringements. A steam engine was something quite different from a novel. In the case of software, however, the two types of law overlap. That is a clear indication that there must be something conceptually very wrong.”
Koepsell thus wants to find a new way of providing protection for people’s ideas in the form of a common denominator for the novel and the steam engine. He sees more potential in private contracts than in laws enforced by the state to ensure protection. Everyone who owns an idea must therefore be made responsible for stipulating the conditions under which others may make use of it. On the internet it is a practice that is gradually gaining ground through what are known as “creative commons” licences so that the creators of software, texts or photos are given various ways to protect their property.
Incidentally though, the enforcement of such protection remains a matter for the authors themselves, just as in the worlds of patents and copyrights. Those who innovate will always have to remain vigilant if they do not want others to steal their ideas.