Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Law

By Kembrew McLeod | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Patent Law and the Appropriation of
Third-World Indigenous Knowledge

The watershed event that more fully brought the scientific fields that dealt with living matter into the sphere of intellectual property law was the 1980 Diamond v. Chakrabarty Supreme Court decision. In this case, a five-to-four majority decided that a living, genetically altered microorganism could be patented under U.S. law. Microbiologist Ananda M. Chakrabarty had invented a genetically altered bacterium that hadn't been seen in nature, an organism that demonstrated the promise of breaking down crude oil and was therefore a useful and potentially profitable product for cleaning up oil spills. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) ruled that Chakrabarty's bacterium did not qualify for a utility patent, but the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, stating, “Anything under the sun that is made by man can be patented.” 1

I demonstrate in chapters 5 and 6 that biotech companies and scientists have taken these words as gospel, paving the way for the patenting of numerous things pertaining to human and plant life. It is important to note that, when discussing “plant patenting” or “gene patenting,” what is being referred to is the patenting of the active ingredients of a plant, or a gene isolated from its natural surroundings—not the thing itself. But, in practice, holding such a patent allows the owner to control the uses of plant extracts or genes as they relate to various industrial, agricultural or medical uses. It allows the patent holder de facto ownership of such genes or plant extracts.


Authorship, Ownership and Patent Law

More generally, this chapter is concerned with issues surrounding patent law, globalization and indigenous communities. In discussing these points,

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