A recent federal appeals court ruling (H/T Science Insider) determined that DNA obtained from a known protein cannot be patented. Contrary to my first impulse, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had denied the patent and the petitioners appealed. While I am hoping this slows down a trend of patenting everything under the sun, primarily as a defensive measure, reading the opinion suggests that USPTO just plain dropped the ball here. However, this does mean that some researchers are inclined to just apply for patents, and hope that things stick. Given the perpetual backload of the USPTO, some stuff will slip through the cracks that probably shouldn’t.
In the area of research, patenting items, whether they are gene sequences, research instruments, or life forms, is a double-edged sword. While it makes sense to allow the limited property right of a patent to help recover some of the expense involved in developing the innovation, a patent barrier can chill research in various areas. When looking at lab equipment, it’s unclear to me whether or not strictly enforcing the intellectual property on a new device pushes forward the leading edge of research. Labs have plenty of associated costs as it is, and aggressive patent enforcement runs the risk of putting labs out of business. Yes, research is expensive, but not all of the expenses are necessarily justified.