50 Years Of Scientific Discovery & Sharing In Antarctica May End Thanks To Patent Greed

from the patents-against-peace dept

For the past 50 years, 47 countries have been a part of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which was used to establish Antarctica as a peaceful science outpost where scientists from many nations could work together and share their discoveries. And it may now all be coming to an end. Why? Because (as Will Klein alerts us) all this discovery and sharing is going on mostly without patenting! This has greatly upset a bunch of companies who want to hoard any such discoveries and want to be able to patent "Antarctic organisms or molecules." Beyond the rather serious question of why either organisms or molecules can be patented, this is a microcosm of what's wrong with patents. Patents are supposed to be used to encourage research (promoting the progress, remember). And this treaty has done a great job promoting progress without patents. As the article notes, products already "derived from Antarctica include dietary supplements, anti-freeze proteins, anti-cancer drugs, enzymes and cosmetic creams." In other words, all of that happened mostly without patents. The only reason to break up this treaty, stop the sharing, and start allowing patents is to slow down the discovery, hoard the results and limit the progress to single companies who get a monopoly on that work.
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Filed Under: antartica, discovery, patents, science, sharing


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  1. identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, 6 Feb 2009 @ 12:29pm

    How fortunate that the article is objective...

    I was curious about the Unilever patent on an Antarctic bacteria protein. Off to do a search, finding a European patent, EP1158866. Looked for "Antarctic" throughout, without success. Okay, back up and look for "bacteria" in the claims. Not there. Okay, try the specification to see where the protein comes from.

    The description focuses a lot of attention on fish, with most of the species being northern fish, I think, like Greenland Cod, Atlantic Cod, Atlantic wolffish. The article lists a number of plants that can provide the protein. Then, almost as an afterthought, the proteins can come from invertebrates, and yeah, bacteria.

    More interesting is the claims. The claims are directed to an antifreeze protein; no bacteria, no Antarctic, no nothing.

    What does this mean? Well, it appears that the author took some liberties with the meaning of some of the patenting done that was supposedly "based on Antarctic research." So, when Unilever found an antifreeze protein in fish and plants and filed a patent based on the protein, and noted merely in passing that the protein could come from bacteria, that qualifies as a patent based on Antarctic research.

    Here are the two references in the patent to bacteria:

    Also AFPs may be obtained from Bacteria.

    A number of expression systems may be utilised to express the polypeptide coding sequence. These include, but are not limited to, bacteria, yeast insect cell systems, plant cell culture systems and plants all transformed with the appropriate expression vectors.

    The article seems to imply that Clarins has a patent on an algae used in a face cream. However, the USPTO shows no grant to Clarins for anything other than a design for a cosmetic container. I then tried the European Patent database for a patent on algae with Clarins as the applicant. Again, no success.

    I noted that Aker Biomarine was also listed in this article with regard to krill. As it happens, Aker Biomarine indeed does have a couple of patent applications (I did not find any patents) for krill related stuff. However, krill are found in the waters around Antarctica and well away from Antarctica, and are thus not covered by the 1959 Antarctic treaty (which covers the continent and ice shelves).

    So, the article appears alarming on its face, but three of the companies listed in the article (I chose them in reverse order, starting with one selected at random) either had no patents related to Antarctica, or a patent that made a reference to something that might be associated with Antarctica.

    Pardon me, but I have to go remind myself what the definition of yellow journalism is.

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