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Patent Watch

The Protection of Profits Over People

Over the past two decades new and controversial technologies, in fields ranging from genetic engineering and nanotechnology to robotics and computer science, have arisen at a pace unprecedented in human development. At the same time, wealthy corporations have gained increasing control over the world’s natural resources. A driving force behind these new technologies and the corporate “grab” of global resources is the lure of “patent profits.”

When the U.S. government issues a patent, it grants the holder the sole right to make, use, or sell an invention within the United States for a specified period–generally twenty years or longer. Historically, the purpose of a patent was to reward an inventor’s ingenuity and help him to recoup the expense of making a “new and useful” invention. However, a policy established by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) during the Reagan administration has significantly expanded the range of patentable technologies, allowing corporations and institutions to patent virtually “anything under the sun.” Most alarmingly, the policy does not allow the government to deny patents based on ethical or public interest concerns.

As a result, the PTO routinely grants patents on hazardous, unethical, or inhumane technologies. For example, patents now cover human cloning techniques, invasive surveillance methods, biological weapons delivery systems, and animals engineered with human and fetal organs. Furthermore, patents granted in recent decades have given private institutions commercial control over resources and ideas that are part of the shared human commons. Such patents include those granted to U.S. corporations on India’s Neem tree, simple mathematical algorithms, thousands of human genes, and even the cells and tissues of indigenous peoples.

The U.S. patent system poses a dual threat to society. First, it encourages the development of pernicious technologies and inventions, even ones likely to cause substantial harm to people and the environment. Second, it allows private ownership of basic resources that should belong to everyone. Making matters worse, the United States is pushing other governments to adopt these policies and make them the global norm.

CTA’s Patent Watch Program seeks to identify pernicious patents granted by the PTO, encourage grassroots activities against such patents, and initiate and support legal challenges against existing and future pernicious patents.