The new slavery: How patent law is being used to turn life into property

Mastercard stole the word priceless. But even if they hadn’t, the ideas of uniqueness and unquantifiable value only skirt around the edges of intrinsic value.

I think it was the saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, who once said: “You don’t dance to get somewhere.” And that’s the point: intrinsic value has no reason; it is beyond means and ends.

Ownership, on the other hand, is all about means and ends. On the basis of the assertion of ownership, we can then claims rights of control.

If it was once understood that life should not be owned — that life shackled through ownership is a form of death — that knowledge is quickly being erased.

It is being erased by those who see in the building blocks of life, the most lucrative forms of property they can imagine. And the mechanism through which life is being turned into property is patent law, which accords life no intrinsic value.

The Supreme Court will soon be called upon to rule in favor of property or life. Given its record as a resolute protector of commerce, it’s hard to be optimistic about the judgement it will make.

Michael Specter writes: On April 12, 1955, Jonas Salk, who had recently invented the polio vaccine, appeared on the television news show “See It Now” to discuss its impact on American society. Before the vaccine became available, dread of polio was almost as widespread as the disease itself. Hundreds of thousands fell ill, most of them children, many of whom died or were permanently disabled.

The vaccine changed all that, and Edward R. Murrow, the show’s host, asked Salk what seemed to be a reasonable question about such a valuable commodity: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Salk was taken aback. “Well, the people,” he said. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The very idea, to Salk, seemed absurd. But that was more than fifty years ago, before the race to mine the human genome turned into the biological Klondike rush of the twenty-first century. Between 1944, when scientists determined that DNA served as the carrier of genetic information, and 1953, when Watson and Crick described it as a double helix, the rate of discovery was rapid. Since then, and particularly after 2003, when work on the genome revealed that we are each built out of roughly twenty-five thousand genes, the promise of genomics has grown exponentially.

The intellectual and commercial bounty from that research has already been enormous, and it increases nearly every day, as we learn ways in which specific genes are associated with diseases — or with mechanisms that can prevent them. It took thousands of scientists and technicians more than a decade to complete the Human Genome Project, and cost well over a billion dollars. The same work can now be carried out in a day or two, in a single laboratory, for a thousand dollars—and the costs continue to plummet. As they do, we edge closer to one of modern science’s central goals: an era of personalized medicine, in which an individual’s treatment for scores of illnesses could be tailored to his specific genetic composition. That, of course, assumes that we own our own genes.

And yet, nearly twenty per cent of the genome — more than four thousand genes — are already covered by at least one U.S. patent. [Continue reading…]

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