An interesting story by Charles Eisenstein in The Guardian highlights the way in which patents often become associated with potentially negative aspects of technology. It can sometimes seem as if the word “patent” when associated with a given technology acts as a flag to the reader that this is evil science.
In the case in point, the on-going debate about whether genetically modified plant crops (GMOs) are good or bad for developing countries is interlaced with the issue of patent holders for such GMOs requiring local farmers to disclose if they are holding patented seeds. It is plain to see that there are in fact two stories here: one about GMOs versus organic methods, and one about patent holders exercising their rights under international treaties such as TRIPS. IPCopy argues that patents are entirely neutral instruments of commerce. How patent holders exercise their rights is a matter of personal conscience, in the same way as how they choose to treat their employees or where they choose to pay their taxes.
In this debate about GMOs it is not the patents that are necessarily bad, rather it is how the owners of those patents decide they will exercise their IP rights around the globe. Following this line, two talented biologists were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their contributions to stem cell biology. One of those scientists (Shinya Yamanaka) has filed several patent applications covering practical applications of his discoveries, the other (John Gurdon) in spite of a career spanning more than 50 years never filed a single patent application. Does this mean that Yamanaka is an ‘evil’ scientist and Gurdon is a ‘good’ scientist – of course not, rather it probably reflects that times have changed in academia as in industry and it is now recognised that patents are a crucial means for taking technology from the lab to the marketplace.