Monday, February 20, 2017

Shobita Parthasarathy's "Patent Politics"

Shobita Parthasarathy is associate professor of public policy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe, and reported the following:
On page 99 we find ourselves at the European Patent Office (EPO). It is struggling to contend with citizen opposition to a patent covering the Oncomouse, an animal genetically engineered to contract cancer. At first glance, this episode seems strange. Why are environmentalists, animal rights activists, and farmers doing battle in a technical and objective decisionmaking arena like a patent bureaucracy?

In fact, over the last 40 years patent systems across the world have experienced extraordinary scrutiny and opposition related to patents on life forms, including genetically engineered organisms, stem cells, and human genes. The US and European patent systems have handled these controversies differently, despite their seemingly objective nature and the many political and economic similarities between the two places. Most scholars argue that this is the result of minor legal differences including the ordre public clause, which prohibits patents deemed contrary to public policy or morality, which is found in European patent laws.

Patent Politics argues that the differences between the US and European patent systems run far deeper than that, and are consequential beyond the world of biotechnology patent law. Analyzing the life form patent controversies in historical and comparative perspective, it demonstrates that different political cultures, ideologies, and histories have led the two places to actually think about patents quite differently. And through the life form patent controversies, the United States and Europe began to understand appropriate governance—including the role of the patent system—rather differently too. On page 99 [inset left; click to enlarge], we see the EPO’s Technical Board of Appeal, made up of senior technical examiners, acknowledge the moral concerns regarding animal patents; given the perceived objectivity of this body, this is surprising. And ultimately, this episode triggers the EPO to develop new policies and programs to demonstrate responsiveness to the public. In addition, it began to suggest explicitly that the interests of the inventor and the public were separate, and to acknowledge a responsibility to balance them. Meanwhile, US decisionmakers and stakeholders rejected similar protests as irrelevant and borne of ignorance, arguing that the patent system’s role was to make decisions that are procedurally objective based on science and law. Furthermore, they dismissed the idea that the public and inventor’s interests differed.

Patent Politics takes us inside one of the most vigorous controversies over the role of moral, social, and ecological concerns in science and technology policymaking, providing tools for nuanced analysis of these debates. It also helps us rethink current proposals for reforming intellectual property systems.
Visit Shobita Parthasarathy's website, and learn more about Patent Politics at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue