Another Example Of Patents Putting Lives At Risk

from the very-sad dept

This one's a bit old, but I finally got around to reading Joe Mullin's fascinating, but troubling, account which pits a Stanford professor and doctor against a French company, Advanced Biological Laboratories, that claims to own patents on (effectively) using computer data to help doctors make diagnostic decisions. If you want to see the specific patents, they are 6,188,988 and 6,081,786. At issue, is the fact that Dr. Bob Shafer has been working for years (actually, since before either patent was filed) on putting together HIVdb, an exceptionally useful database on HIV details that many researchers rely on to help figure out potential treatments to HIV. Except... of course, ABL claims that it infringes on those patents.

Since Dr. Shafer works for Stanford, ABL threatened Stanford, who brought in some lawyers who pointed out that the patents had very little chance of surviving any sort of review -- but Stanford, apparently anxious to avoid a long, drawn-out or costly lawsuit, agreed to settle the dispute, promising to put a warning note on HIVdb that using the system for commercial purposes might require a license from ABL. Shafer, who didn't know such a settlement was in the works, was quite upset to find out about it -- and refused to put the warning message on the site (eventually he put an edited version, hidden deep within the site, including his own opinion about how silly it was).

Shafer also has hired his own lawyer and is pushing forward to invalidate ABL's patents. He's also been learning more and more about how such patents are all too often used against their stated purpose, and how, rather than encouraging innovation, they're being used to stifle it and (more importantly) to put lives at risk. Shafer and his colleagues are reasonably horrified that Stanford gave in, noting that it only encourages such behavior, and enables ABL and others to pull the same sort of stunt against others.

Given that Shafer refused to live up to the terms of the deal that he had never agreed to in the first place, ABL moved forward and sued Shafer directly, and that case is now ongoing -- even as Shafer hopes to invalidate the patent through the Patent Office itself. The whole thing is yet another story of how patents are being used to stifle innovation -- and sometimes put lives at risk. It's tragic that we've been seeing so many such stories lately. Update: It's been pointed out that some of you might want to look at the great website Shafer has put together, at if you want to learn more.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2009 @ 11:10am

    Re: How many stories are there?

    "Question: If 208 patents out of 1.5-2.0 million patents in force are killing kittens and babies, what about the other 1.5-2.0 million patents?"

    Your statement is making the assumption that the 208 patents per year are the only crappy patents in the super set of all patents. If you were to take the 208 crappy patents per year that Mike reports on in his posts as a representative set of crappy patents that Mike finds in the total number of patents he logically has time to review and report on, then your valid to crappy patent ratio will probably look a bit different.

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