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Patenting Nature

A Problem of History

By Christopher Beauchamp

The practice of patenting genetic material is currently under sharp attack. Recent litigation has forced the courts to grapple with the doctrinal basis for patenting DNA sequences identical to those found in nature. Faced with conflicting authorities and difficult policy questions, courts have leaned heavily on history to guide—or at least to justify—their decisions.

This article explores the history in question. It traces the patent law’s changing treatment of “products of nature” in an attempt to untangle the origins of present-day patentability arguments. The evidence suggests that the historical foundations of the bar on patenting products of nature are surprisingly shaky.

The article also reveals how isolated biological materials first came to be patented. This task, I argue, requires looking not only to court decisions, but also to the history of patent practice. My principal vehicle for doing so is the case of Parke-Davis & Co. v. H. K. Mulford Co., a century-old decision by Judge Learned Hand, which now stands as a central (and much disputed) precedent for the patenting of DNA sequences. Parke-Davis arose at a key moment in the sociology of intellectual property, when the American pharmaceutical industry first learned to embrace the power of patents. The article shows how Parke-Davis came to prominence in half-understood form during the biotechnology era, and how the decision’s original rationale suddenly seems poised to play a major role in resolving the gene patent question.

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April 17, 2013 Cite: 16 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 257 (2013)