The biotech industry's pursuit of patents on products of nature raises questions about intellectual ownership of materials that are discovered rather than invented.
On May 18, 1995, about 200 religious leaders representing 80 faiths gathered in Washington, D.C., to call for a moratorium on the patenting of genes and genetically engineered creatures. In their "Joint Appeal Against Human and Animal Patenting," the group stated: "We, the undersigned religious leaders, oppose the patenting of human and animal life forms. We are disturbed by the U.S. Patent Office's recent decision to patent body parts and several genetically engineered animals. We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patented as human inventions."
Religious leaders, such as Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, argue that "patent policy should maintain the distinction between discovery and invention, between what already exists in nature and what human ingenuity creates. The intricacies of nature ... ought not to be patentable." Remarks such as this worry the biotech industry, which has come to expect as a result of decisions over two decades by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and by the courts that genes, cells, and multicellular animals are eligible for patent protection. The industry is concerned because religious leaders have considerable influence and because their point of view is consistent with the longtime legal precedent that products of narrate are not patentable.
Representatives of the biotech industry argue that their religious critics fail to understand the purpose of patent law. According to the industry view, patents create temporary legal monopolies to encourage useful advances in knowledge; they have no moral or theological implications. As Biotechnology Industry Organization president Carl Feldbaum noted: "A patent on a gene does not confer ownership of that gene to the patent holder. It only provides temporary legal protections against attempts by other parties to commercialize the patent holder's discovery or invention." Lisa Raines, vice president of the Genzyme Corporation, summed up the industry view: "The religious leaders don't understand perhaps what our goals are. Our goals are not to play God; they are to play doctor."
The differences between the two groups are not irreconcilable. The religious leaders are not opposed to …