James Watson, Co-Discoverer Of DNA's Structure, Says 'Patenting Human Genes Was Lunacy'

from the and-he-should-know dept

Techdirt has been covering the important Myriad Genetics case for a while. Although the CAFC decided that isolated genes could be patented, the Supreme Court has asked the appeals court to review the case in light of the former’s rejection of medical diagnostic patents.

The importance of this case is highlighted by the amicus curiae brief filed by James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 (along with Maurice Wilkins for related work.) Watson makes his views plain from the start:

what the Court misses, I fear, is the fundamentally unique nature of the human gene. Simply put, no other molecule can store the information necessary to create and propagate life the way DNA does. It is a chemical entity, but DNA’s importance flows from its ability to encode and transmit the instructions for creating humans. Life’s instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies created at the whim of Congress or the courts.

Watson recalls discussions on the topic during the $3 billion Human Genome Project to sequence human DNA as completely as possible:

Even at the early stages of the project, we were concerned about the issue of patenting human genes. Most, although not all, eminent scientists recognized that human genes should not be monopolized by patents. I believed at the time — and continue to believe — that the issue of patenting human genes went to the very crux of whether the information encoded by human DNA should be freely available to the scientific community. Some twenty years ago, I explained that patenting human genes was lunacy, and I was not a lone voice.

He also points out some concrete problems with gene patents in terms of their impact on assays (tests) that involve multiple genes:

If each of the human genes used in a new multi-gene assay are subject to patents, I fear that useful tests requiring multiple human genes will be unnecessarily delayed, become prohibitively expensive, or, worse yet, never be made available to patients at all. For a new assay using hundreds of human genes, the sea of patents and patent applications would create hundreds, if not thousands, of individual obstacles to developing and commercializing the assay. The best way, in my view, to resolve this problem is to eliminate the unnecessary patenting of human genes.

As this makes clear, if gene patents are permitted, patent thickets are likely to develop, which will delay new tests, and make them more expensive.

Aside from his position as one of the people that discovered the structure of DNA in the first place, Watson has another reason why his views on patenting genes carry some weight. As he relates in a footnote to his submission to the court:

Amusingly, after I gave my first presentation of our DNA structure in June 1953, Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist and inventor of the nuclear chain reaction, asked whether I would patent the structure. That, of course, was out of the question.

Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, Watson declined to patent one of the most important discoveries of all time because he believed it was the right thing to do. Let’s hope the appeals court agrees with him when it hands down its decision on gene patents.

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Comments on “James Watson, Co-Discoverer Of DNA's Structure, Says 'Patenting Human Genes Was Lunacy'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Royalties

You can also use any of the other names for it.

Other names

Hydrogen oxide
Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO)
Hydrogen monoxide
Dihydrogen oxide
Hydrogen hydroxide (HH or HOH)
Hydric acid
Hydrohydroxic acid
Hydroxic acid
Hydroxylic acid
Hydroxilic acid
μ-Oxido dihydrogen

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Properties_of_water

Pseudonym (profile) says:

Re: discoveries

I thought that was funny too.

Having said that, the world wide web is a perfect example of an invention which is a remix. Sir Tim freely admits that very little of the underlying technology was fundamentally original. MIME (on which HTTP is based) and SGML (on which HTML is based) were pre-existing standards. He did “invent” the URL/URI (and subsequently apologised for the double slash), but the key innovation was the exact combination of pre-existing technology and the brilliant execution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: discoveries

> He did “invent” the URL/URI (and subsequently apologised for the double slash)

The double slash wasn’t original too; it was from the Apollo Domain (see http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/06/sir-tim-berners-lee/). The only original part seems to be the http: in front, and would not surprise me if that came from somewhere else too.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

I fear that useful tests requiring multiple human genes will be unnecessarily delayed, become prohibitively expensive, or, worse yet, never be made available to patients at all. For a new assay using hundreds of human genes, the sea of patents and patent applications would create hundreds, if not thousands, of individual obstacles to developing and commercializing the assay

I’ve argued this before. Patents, by their very definition, hold back innovation. Some people, many of them here, have no problem recognizing this with software, but think it’s different for other fields for some reason. However, patents hold back innovation in all fields. They are a tax, either in time, money or effort, on innovation.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:


Just wait until the patent mess we get into if germline treatments ever get off the ground. Germlines are inheritable sequences – those passed from parent to child.

Would a potential parent with a patented sequence have to get permission from the patent holder before procreating? What about not wearing a condom during sex, or donating sperm? Would the child be bound by some contract that was entered into before they were born? The consequences here are quite staggering with any gene patents in the picture.

Or even without germline therapies, what happens if a patented sequence is the same as one that arose naturally through random mutation? We can’t get independent invention sorted out, what makes anyone think we could even remotely handle that in our legal system?

Anonymous Coward says:

Back in the days when you bought things like printing presses, tractors, and many other things they came with technical manuals. These technical manuals had pictures of various components and they had information about how everything is put together.

Now a days, despite more and stricter patents, almost nothing comes with a technical manual anymore, they only have a users manual and most of the time a modern users manual is very brief (it maybe twenty pages for like three languages leaving like six or seven pages per language, depending on what you buy. A users manual for a computer motherboard and a car maybe more pages).

I thought patents were supposed to encourage people to divulge more information. But they seem to do the exact opposite. Instead of encouraging companies to disclose more information patents actually discourage companies from disclosing information because doing so makes it far easier for a patent troll to simply read the manual, find potentially infringing information, and sue the company. Not disclosing the information may require the meritless patent troll to actually reverse engineer the product to find every possible infringement and this is far more difficult for a patent troll that’s too stupid, lazy, and ignorant to build anything to do. and so companies are now much more afraid to disclose information about how their products work in fear of getting sued. Why do so when it can expose you to so much more liability?

Andrew F (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s actually a good case for an independent invention defense. Assume that to win a patent case, you had to prove that the defendant copied your invention from something you did. If you bundled a technical manual explaining how the invention worked with every product you sold, and the defendant purchased said product and manual, you’d have a relatively easy case.

“How do you know I copied your invention?”
“You bought the how-to manual.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure I understand your post.

“you had to prove that the defendant copied your invention from something you did”

If you had to prove that the defendant copies your invention then that would make you the plaintiff. If you are the plaintiff then how can you use the independent invention ‘defense’ when you are on the offense.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

user manuals for many products also only contain information that anyone with any business anywhere NEAR the item already knows… and NOTHING that would actually be useful should a problem arise.

(every single PS2 game sold here, from memory, wasted the first three or four pages of it’s manual on an explanation of the European content rating system and instruction as to How to Set Up a PS2. (which had it’s own manual, with better instructions on just that) also: how to insert the disk. the manuals were 30 pages long, tops, usually closer to 20, and often repeated THAT part in German and one or two other european languages as well. it wasn’t unusual for the bit that was Actually About the Game to only be in english though. (then again, the games themselves were less and less likely to have other language options as time went by))

Roland says:

no ownership of people

I thought this sort of thing was banned by Lincoln via the Emancipation Proclamation. You can’t own people, or even parts of people. Not 3/5ths of a person (Dred Scott decision). And if “Corporations are people, my friend”, then corporate takeovers/buyouts a la Bain Capital (or even IPOs) would also involve ownership of people. And why doesn’t the Citizens United decision force corporations to use the Personal Income Tax Code, like the rest of us people? Alternatively, why can’t I use the Corporate Tax Code?

DNY (profile) says:

Re: no ownership of people

Oh, cut it out with the “corporations are people” schtick. The majority in Citizens United did not base the decision on the notion of rights of a corporation as a juridical person, but on the rights of the shareholders, employees and managers as natural persons: their rights codified under the First Amendment are not abrogated by having banded together for a commercial purpose. It just leveled the playing field with labor unions whom no one seems to think should not be able to engage in political speech, even though they,too, are juridical and not natural persons.

Actually it is equally obnoxious for corporate managers to use corporate (ultimately shareholder) resources to engage in political speech without a vote of the shareholders to establish a corporate position, and for union bosses to use union (ultimately worker) resources to engage in political speech without a vote of the rank-and-file to establish a union position.

The free speech rights of corporations are derivative from those of the shareholders, just as those of unions are derivative from those of the members. I suspect fixing both problems in one go, by enacting a law requiring that all political “speech” be approved by majority vote of the shareholders (for joint-stock corporations) or members (for membership-corporations like labor unions) would pass judicial review just fine.

Anonymous Coward says:

Patenting human genes da fuck? It would eventually lead to being forced to do what they want. They could require you to do some fucked up stuff when it comes to any issue involving that gene.

It might be the methods such as being required to take X medication to even have your shit looked at.

I wanna patent a gene as well then anyone with it that I don’t like I will demand it be removed and since it’s not possible I’ll just demand that they should be executed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Masnick, you are an idiot. I’ve already told you why we need IP; without it supermarkets will collapse and the human race will starve. If you don’t let people patent human genes propogating future generations will completely cease to exist. Why do you hate paywalls, Little Chubby Chicken Pirate Mike?


Anonymous Coward says:

‘Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, Watson declined to patent one of the most important discoveries of all time because he believed it was the right thing to do. Let’s hope the appeals court agrees with him when it hands down its decision on gene patents.’

since when has a court used common sense in a ruling, particularly when there is going to be loads a money involved? can you imagine the reduction in medicinal discovery if a laboratory has to get permission every time it wants to use dna in experiments? what a joke!

staff says:

another biased article

“Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web…”

It has yet to be determined exactly what Lee invented. Still, any of his work which was public can be used against anyone trying to patent related technologies if Lee’s work predated theirs, so have a beer and relax. As typical, you get all worked into a lather over things that aren’t worth your frantics. As always, all you know about patents is you don’t have any.

The Constitution says ?To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries?. Therefore, if an invention is useful and promotes science, it should be patentable. It?s that simple.

Preemie Maboroshi (user link) says:

patent technology, not subject matter

About the only thing I know about DNA is what I learned by reading The Double Helix. That is all.

But what I would guess is that you would want to patent technology that would allow you to analyze the human genome.

Or if a report is made about some technology or therapeutic technique which is built on the employment of the current understanding of the genome, credit can be given for that specific interpretation of data.

It makes sense (to me) to patent technology. And it makes sense that the redistribution of data made available by the technology should include a reference to the original distribution source. But it makes zero sense to patent the *subject* of the research.

Vic Kley says:

Watson can't shut up

Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins did the actual work in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson lied for many years pretending that Rosalind made no contribution, hardly someone whose opinion we should value.

Further a quick look on google shows many patents for James D. Watson. In any event elucidating the structure of DNA is not a patentable invention or in fact any invention at all.

Setting up a series of processes, devices, chemicals(including DNA) and steps leading to the diagnosis of one or more diseases is an invention and may deserve a patent (for 20 years).

The contention that a patent on some bit of DNA even uniquely Human DNA (and there isn’t much of that) that provides a limited monopoly for 20 years and then COMPLETE PUBLIC access is a great wrong to humanity, while allowing people to suffer and die is morally ok is beyond a reasonable understanding. Patents enervate competition and capital to pursue solutions that solve problems for paying customers.

Tex Arcana (profile) says:

Intellectual Property Violation Case # 4846298ADTI-13.a90126.$/@#%????.z

Dear sir or madam:

You have been found in violation of our Intellectual Property, Patent #1,297,082,978,643,204.j, A Patent Covering the Gene That Makes Blood Red.

Since it has been discovered that your blood is red, it is ordered that you give up said blood, and any red-like products in your body; as well as pay a fine not to be less than $1,853,061,067,081,921.99; and submit yourself to the nearest detention center for examination for any other genetic patent violations. If you are found to be in violation of any other patents, the offending violations will be immediately excised and you will be beaten into paying the appropriate fine, again not to be less than $1,853,061,067,081,921.99.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Citizen Corporation
666 Insanity Way
Washington, DC, 00666

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