Can you patent DNA? Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys‘ Simon Wright explains the sticky areas of patenting.
‘There are probably only a couple of hundred patent attorneys that do biotechnology subjects. Some cases are very controversial and get a lot of publicity, normally negative. Some even file and handle patent applications anonymously, using a big firm’s name on documents so that they can’t be targeted.
‘Only in the 21st century have stem cells been isolated or, indeed, have we even known that stem cells existed in the body. With the ability to correct mutations in DNA, the possibility of curing any disease caused by a genetic defect has arisen in existing humans and potentially in embryos. That raises ethical issues in addition to whether it’s patentable. The law says you can’t patent anything that’s immoral – basically, anything that destroys a human embryo.’
If It’s New, It’s Patentable
Simon Wright has been active in the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) for many years and is now on their governing Council. He chairs the Life Sciences Committee. Simon explained that a patent protects something technical for up to 20 years. It’s basically a monopoly granted by the government patent office, in exchange for you detailing your scientific invention. You can only get a patent if it’s novel and inventive, and if you’ve described how to use your invention to other people.
‘Professional rules by our professional bodies don’t cover ethical issues in the sense of whether you can or cannot handle controversial cases. To a certain extent it’s down to the individual patent attorney. Most don’t see handling this sort of subject matter as being immoral, but I do know a few who refuse to deal with those sorts of cases.’
Science: What Gets Patent Attorneys Out of Bed
‘Patent attorneys very much enjoy the science and technology, and that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Most of us will have a science degree or two. We start off as scientists and engineers and then qualify in the law on the job, either with a law firm or through being employed by a company. Being a patent attorney is great because you see cutting edge technology, often a year or so before the general public, which I personally find fascinating.’
Patenting: How Technology Has Changed Things
‘The actual job itself, in terms of advising clients and filing patent applications, has by and large stayed the same but computers, the internet and social media have changed things. The file at the patent office on a particular patent application used to be in paper, and if it was at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich then you’d have to find somebody in Munich to go and have a look at the file physically. This is all online now. You can go to the EPO website, look up a particular case and see all the documents in chronological order. The internet has made our job far more open and more easily accessible.
‘Social media has affected how you do business development. I use LinkedIn extensively for keeping in contact with clients and I will tell clients if I’ll be in their town to arrange a visit. I get updates. I’ll send out updates, and use it to get new business.’
Does your profession experience similar ethical challenges? Let us know about them in the comments!