The shamans were unhappy. Querubin Queta Alvarado and Antonio
Jacanamijoy Rosero, spiritual leaders of their Amazonian tribes,
stood incongruously in the headquarters of the US Patent & Trademark
Office wearing traditional garb - beads, feathers, and teeth. But
under their arms were official protest documents prepared by their
The shamans say the Patent Office has helped steal their most
important and sacred cultural property, an Amazonian plant called
ayahuasca. So in March they came to Washington to request that US
authorities review their decision to award an American researcher the
patent for the plant.
"Some indigenous people say the patenting of this plant is the
equivalent of somebody in their group patenting the Christian cross,"
says David Rothschild of the Washington-based Coalition for Amazonian
Peoples and their Environment. "It's also offensive to them that
someone in the US is claiming the intellectual property of the
knowledge of this plant, which they see as being theirs."
The ayahuasca case is just one in a series of international
controversies triggered by the awarding of US patents on living
matter - from naturally occurring plants and genetically engineered
mice to the human cell line of an indigenous man living in Papua New
America is unusually liberal in determining what is eligible for
patent ownership. Many countries do not award patents on living
things, except crop strains. But under US patent law almost anything
that has been modified or manipulated by human invention is eligible
for consideration - including microbes, plants, animals, even
products created from human tissues, cells, or DNA. Supporters say
such "life patents" are essential to encourage the development of new
crop varieties, livestock, pharmaceuticals, and medical procedures.
But a number of interest groups oppose such patents on moral,
ethical, or social grounds. Most argue that life patents effectively
steal intellectual property from their rightful owners, or that the
commodification of life - especially human genes and tissues - has
disturbing implications that society is profoundly unprepared to
"Human genes evolved over hundreds of millions of years. They're
shared property," says Jonathan King, a molecular biologist at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "For a company
to claim a patent on a gene sequence is straight theft of the most
But US companies commonly patent gene sequences, human cell lines,
even entire, genetically modified organisms. Others have received
patents for allegedly novel uses of naturally occurring plants, often
after learning of their uses from people in developing countries.
Thomas Jefferson excluded living creatures when drafting the
country's first patent laws. Under a 1930 congressional act,
exceptions were made from seed and plant breeders, but patents on
other life forms were not allowed. But in 1980, the Supreme Court
voted to allow the patenting of a genetically modified bacterium.
"That decision says that any machine, manufacture, composition of
matter, process, or improvement that involved the intervention of
mankind ... was patent-eligible," says Stephen Kunin, deputy
assistant commissioner for patent policy.
The Supreme Court identified only three exclusions: abstract
ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena. While the court did
not exclude patents on human beings, they are currently excluded
under a 1981 Patent Office policy memorandum. "That's where we still
stand today," Mr. …