Supreme Court Will Finally Say If Genes Are Patentable

from the can-they-punt-around-the-question? dept

This isn’t a huge surprise, but after a long series of intermediary steps, the Supreme Court has finally agreed to weigh in on whether or not genes are patentable. For a bit of background on gene patents, back in 2010, a district court ruled in the Myriad Genetics case that gene patents were invalid, noting that they “are directed to a law of nature and were therefore improperly granted.” A nice, clear and useful statement.

But, of course, it was just the first step in a long process. Myriad took the case to the appeals court for the federal circuit (CAFC), the notoriously patent friendly appeals court. The only surprise here was that the US Justice Department actually said it agreed that genes shouldn’t be patentable (showing a potential disagreement within the administration, as the US Patent Office was not happy). End result? CAFC decided genes are patentable because they’re “separate” from your DNA.

Then, before the Supreme Court could review that case, it ruled in a different case, the Prometheus v. Mayo case, involving medical diagnostics, which it ruled to be unpatentable subject matter. As expected, soon after that, the Supreme Court told CAFC to reconsider the gene patent case in light of its ruling in the medical diagnostics patents case. In August, CAFC said that it still believed genes were patentable.

And, of course, everyone fully expected this to end up before the Supreme Court again, which it will. Of interest, there were two questions appealed to the Supreme Court: (1) are human genes patentable and (2) did CAFC make a mistake in its application of the Myriad medical diagnostics patent ruling to this case — but the Supreme Court has only agreed to review the first question: are human genes patentable? This is both good and bad. As we’ve seen all too often lately, the Supreme Court has bent over backwards to come up with ways to make very, very narrow rulings (see: Bilsky), effectively punting on the bigger questions, and leaving a ton of uncertainty in the market. By directly having just a single question over the patentability of genes on the table, hopefully it can issue a crisp and clear ruling (preferably rejecting those patents!)

The potential downside, though, is that if it does somehow find genes patentable, then it would mean that the CAFC ruling stands. Considering that we found the CAFC’s reasoning troubling, this could be a larger problem. It would mean that CAFC can get away with dancing around the Myriad standard for rejecting patents, to leave in place potentially dangerous and ridiculous patents on elements of nature. This also means that we won’t get a broader ruling on how to apply the Myriad standards, which actually might have been useful for rejecting software or business method patents. Either way, the most important thing at this stage is that the court outright reject gene patents.

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Companies: myriad genetics

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Comments on “Supreme Court Will Finally Say If Genes Are Patentable”

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SilverBlade says:

Many problems with this.

What happens if someone was born with a gene that was patented? Is that person the property of the patent owner? Are they then killed off because that child would pass down the gene to their kids – and he would be an ‘unauthorized distributor’ of the patent?

DNA and genes are not separate. They need the other. If the judge rules that genes are patentable, then our world is going to be fucked in the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Many problems with this.

The patents in this case cover the isolated forms of the genes, not the “wild-type” genes.

Also, a patent only gives an exlusive right to make, use, sell, offer for sale, or import into the U.S. the covered invention.

The only potential item on that list relevant to a person born with the genes in question would be “use,” but I don’t think involuntary action (i.e. being born, cell division), can qualify.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Many problems with this.

Well, you’re presuming that someone has “rights” to their own genes in the first place. I’m not sure if that’s true, or what it would mean.

The short answer, though, is that I don’t think anyone is at risk of patent infringement for being born, living, or making babies that happen to have certain genes.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Rogue courts

CAFC seems to be as much a rogue court as that one in Texas that keeps handing down ridiculous patent rulings that keep getting overturned.

So I have to wonder, what procedures are available to rein in a rogue court? We’ve got checks and balances, prescribed methods to remove all sorts of abusive government officials from power. How do you get rid of the judges running a rogue court?

Jikap (profile) says:

Of course our children should play a license fee for infringing on our genes! Stealing is wrong, whether it’s a DVD at the store or your parent’s genes.

Parents need an incentive to procreate, and that incentive is the gene patents! You can hardly expect them to procreate for free? There wouldn’t be any children without gene patents!

saulgoode (profile) says:


In the following sentence, “Mayo” should be substituted in place of “Myriad” (in the penultimate paragraph).

Of interest, there were two questions appealed to the Supreme Court: (1) are human genes patentable and (2) did CAFC make a mistake in its application of the Myriad medical diagnostics patent ruling to this case — but the Supreme Court has only agreed to review the first question: are human genes patentable?

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