Patently problematic The trouble with patenting

Patents give people, or companies, exclusive rights to manufacture and sell a new invention for up to 20 years. Only after this time can anyone else make the same thing and sell it. The spirit of patenting has changed in recent years as companies are have managed to get rights to patent discoveries rather than just inventions. In 1987, the United States allowed patents on living organisms for the first time. After that, the floodgates opened as each company scrambled to patent as many genes, either discovered or altered, as possible. The idea behind this was, as ever, to prevent competitors from making money out of your work. Some scientists who had been working on GE techniques in public labs funded by public money realised they could make lots more money if they founded new GE companies and worked for them instead, taking their knowledge of genes with them and applying for as many patents as possible on the bits of genes they knew about.

Patenting and competition: Through a new system of what are called called 'intellectual property rights' (administered by WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization), patents allow companies to own the new forms of plants and animals they make. This means they can charge farmers all over the world for the use of 'their' creations. Some people, not surprisingly, think patenting is a brilliant idea. The companies say they need the money they get from patents to pay for more research and development. Others think it is a very bad idea indeed when it comes to being able to patent living things. And there's worse: a new form of piracy which patenting makes possible called biopiracy.