Patents, Human Rights and Access to Science

Patents, Human Rights and Access to Science

Aurora Plomer

The new millennium has been described as ‘the century of biology’, but scientific progress and access to medicines has been marred by global disputes over ownership of the science by universities and private companies. This book examines the challenges posed by the modern patent system to the right of everyone to access the benefits of science in international law.

Chapter 2: The moral architecture of human rights and rights of access to science

Aurora Plomer

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, intellectual property law


Article 27 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 15 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) proclaim the right of everyone to share in scientific advancement and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. Yet, alongside the ideal of universal access to the benefits of science, the second part of these articles also proclaim the seemingly conflicting right of authors and inventors to the protection of their ‘moral and material interests.’ The potential tension is apparent in the controversies which have erupted over the patenting of the human genome in the 1990s and the unfolding sequel in the courts today in the triad of high-profile cases involving patents on genes and gene sequences (Myriad) and stem cells (WARF, Brustle). Do the international human rights texts imply that Craig Venter, Myriad and WARF have a fundamental human right to patent isolated human genes and cells? How is the apparent tension between public rights of access to the benefits of science and the (private) rights of authors and inventors to the protection of their individual interests to be understood and resolved in the light of the massive expansion of IP rights to cover isolated cell cultures and genes this century and the growing inroads of private finance and industry in the public domain of scientific knowledge? The answer to these questions depends on the normative basis and content of the right to enjoy the benefits of science.

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